Should people too poor to hire lawyers fend for themselves? Of course not

Should people too poor to hire lawyers fend for themselves? Of course not

National Public Defense Day is commemorated on March 18 every year. On that day in 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case. Gideon v. Wainwright, Establishing the right to counseling in criminal cases for those who cannot afford a lawyer.

The Supreme Court based its ruling on the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor man with an eighth-grade education who was arrested for burglarizing a pool hall where about $5 and some drinks were stolen. Mr. Gideon declared his innocence and asked for a lawyer. The judge told him that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must represent himself. Mr. Gideon did his best, but the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to five years in the state prison.

From his Florida prison, Mr. Gideon submitted a handwritten petition to a superior court, arguing that the US Constitution does not allow people to be convicted and imprisoned without legal representation. The court observed that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversarial system of criminal justice, any person who comes to court, too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be guaranteed a fair trial unless counsel is provided.” The US Supreme Court overturned Mr. Gideon’s conviction and granted him a new trial, ordering him to have a lawyer. With the help of counsel, Mr. Gideon was acquitted.

This year marks the 60th anniversary Gideon v. Wainwright. This day highlights the important, dedicated, excellent and diligent work that everyone in the indigent defense community does on behalf of their clients. Public defense attorneys, paralegals, investigators, legal aid workers and client assistance specialists provide proactive, client-focused representation to indigent persons accused of crimes. The role of the public protection community is to advocate for ordinary citizens, reaffirm their human dignity and protect their constitutional rights.

Stanislaus County has a long tradition of equal justice regardless of income, establishing the Office of the Stanislaus County Public Defender in 1955. In its first nine months, the public defender’s office handled 157 cases. During that period, three jury trials were conducted resulting in one acquittal, one hung jury, and one conviction. Two court trials were conducted on the question of sanity. Both men were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

today Stanislaus County Public Defender handles 13,000 cases a year and represents the vast majority of all arrests in Stanislaus County. In addition to traditional legal representation, the Public Defender’s Client Support Program expands representation by focusing on the non-legal needs of each individual client to address the root causes of system involvement. Through collaboration with their clients, equity partners and communities, they are able to connect clients with services such as mental health and substance use disorder treatment, employment and housing services, education and post-conviction relief. This holistic approach provides a path to future success while reducing recidivism and creating a healthier, safer community.

On this 60th anniversary of the Gideon decision, I am reminded of the injustices that were averted by the Supreme Court’s ruling and the countless numbers of people whose lives have been changed by our criminal justice system. I am grateful for the public defense community and those who work tirelessly to serve their clients and our community while protecting the Constitution and ensuring justice for all.

Jennifer Jennison, who has represented the people of Stanislaus County since 1998, was Public defender In October 2021.

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