John Oliver on the Public Defender System

public defenders JOJohn Oliver did it again! With more than 2.8 million views, John Oliver in his weekly “Last Week Tonight” analyzes the public defender system in the United States as only he can do it.  He begins by quoting the 1963 decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court stated that “… any person … who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Does this system works as intended?

He shares quite a few shocking facts and statistics:

  • “… anywhere from 60-90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly-funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction.” (Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 9, 2013). 
  • “… 40% of all county-based public defender offices had no investigators on staff.” (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
  • “… about 95 percent of criminal cases never make it to trial.”

He explains that

[t]he Miranda warning includes the right to a public defender. It doesn’t include the fact that public defenders are highly overworked and grossly underpaid.

Related Readings:

  • Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). 
  • William Lawrence, The Public Defender Crisis in America: Gideon, the War on Drugs and the Fight for Equality, 5 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 167 (2015).
  • Indigent Defense Systems (Bureau of Justice Statistics) offers statistical data on the right to counsel and methods for providing indigent criminal defense.
  • John Oliver, Public DefendersLast Week Tonight (Sept. 13, 2015).

One comment

  1. Richard Leff

    I won’t disagree, generally with what Oliver had to say, but he can’t indict the entire system of public defense, with a general survey that may be skewed with statistics that include the so-caled “red”-“backword” states.

    In many states, New York included, notwithstanding the recent court case and settlement to modify public defense in a few rural counties (red neck?), the major urban area programs are quite adequate, although maybe a few tweeks are needed, mostly which can be solved by proper funding.

    If the public defense programs were given the same funding received by the DA’s offices across the state of NY the public defense system would not have any problems.

    More funding for investigators and collateral professionals, not to mention a raise in hourly rates would certainly increase the “production” by independent public defenders. The fees should, it is submitted, approximate those paid by the Feds for conflict public defenders.

    But, even so, at least in Erie County (New York) and probably Monroe and Onondaga, Albany, Broome and many more, public defense is exemplary and only needs some tweeking and obviously adequate funding which is anathema to the legislatures.

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