In 1974 Michigan-resident Edward Carter was convicted of assaulting a pregnant woman in his university bathroom. The trial lasted for only two days and Edward’s court-appointed lawyer – who was fresh out of law school at the time – encouraged him to take a plea deal despite that Edward adamantly maintained his innocence. After living 35 years with a false conviction, Edward was finally able to prove his innocence with the help of fingerprint evidence as well as a new testimony placing Edward in custody on theft charges at the time of the attack.
Tragically, Edward’s ordeal is not an outlier, but rather a representation of the effects of a broken system. The president of the national Legal Services Corp, Jim Sandman, proclaims the U.S legal system to be “in a state of crisis."
How did we get here? The Supreme Court ruled almost 50 years ago that any American accused of a crime has the right to a defense lawyer, regardless of whether they have the financial means to procure one or not. However, that guarantee does not apply to civil disputes — such as evictions and child custody cases — creating a patchwork system in which states leave it to the counties to decide how to appoint and pay for lawyers for the poor.
The result? A system which does not supply enough lawyers to cover the almost 60 million people who now qualify for civil legal aid. Over the past couple of years the federal legal aid program estimates that its had to lay off more than 1,200 of the lawyers it once employed - 1 in 7 nationwide. Additionally, many offices in rural Arkansas and North Carolina have shut down outright due to lack of federal funding. The remaining lawyers take on over 400 cases a year – an impossible amount to adequately investigate and prepare for. These overextended lawyers make a flat rate for defending poor people – often a meager amount that doesn’t even secure them a living wage. Thus, it’s in these lawyer’s best interest to encourage clients to plead guilty as soon as possible in order to keep the docket moving and generate enough cases to make a living.
That’s no kind of justice for those who can’t afford their own legal counsel. Whether or not they committed a crime, the American judicial system upholds the principle of innocent until proven guilty. We can’t allow federal budget constraints to prevent adequate funding for legal aid programs across the country.
Sign the petition demanding that Congress increase the budget allocation to the national Legal Service Corp to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their economic status, receive quality legal representation and that true justice is served.