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The Right to Counsel 50 Years After Gideon: A Resource Page

Fifty years after the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to an attorney for criminal defendants, America’s indigent defense system is in a state of crisis. This resource page features analysis on the unfulfilled promise of Gideon and the steps required to fix it.

Published: April 9, 2013

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court reached a landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, recognizing the constitutional right to an attorney for criminal defendants, even when they cannot afford one. Today, however, the right to counsel for poor Americans has amounted to little more than an unfunded mandate. Public defendants are so underfunded and overworked that they cannot possibly provide adequate representation to defendants. The average amount of time spent by a public defender at arraignment is often less than six minutes per case. And that is when counsel is present and allowed to give information.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described America’s indigent defense systems as existing “in a state of crisis” and called for advocates, the private sector, and every level of government to right this injustice. In a forthcoming report, the Brennan Center for Justice will identify a series of low-cost recommendations necessary to secure a more effective and fair system of public defense. The Center will also host a roundtable discussion on April 9th at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to further discuss the challenges of Gideon and the next steps necessary to fulfill this promise.

For more information on Gideon, check out the list below: