When the Poor Go to Court
Across the nation, many indigents wind up being sentenced to jail time without ever seeing a lawyer
Last July, a homeless man named Hubert Lindsey was stopped by police officers in Gulfport, Miss., for riding his bicycle without a light. The police soon discovered that Lindsey was a wanted man. Gulfport records showed he owed $4,780 in old fines. So, off to jail he went.
Legal activists now suing the city in federal court say it was pretty obvious that Lindsey couldn't pay the fines. According to their complaint, he lived in a tent, was unemployed, and appeared permanently disabled by an unseeing eye and a mangled arm. But without a lawyer to plead his case, the question of whether Lindsey was a scofflaw or just plain poor never came up. Nor did the question of whether the fines were really owed, or if it was constitutional to jail him for debts he couldn't pay. Nobody, the activists say, even bothered to mention alternatives like community service. The judge ordered Lindsey to "sit out" the fine in jail. That took nearly two months.
Lindsey isn't the only poor American to face a judge on dubious charges without adequate legal representation. Far from it. More than 40 years after the Supreme Court ruled that competent counsel was a fundamental right of all Americans accused of crimes, the American Bar Association says thousands of indigent defendants still navigate the court system each year without a lawyer, or with one who doesn't have the time, resources, or interest to provide effective representation. Whether they face serious felony charges or misdemeanors, the poor often find themselves alone in a sometimes-Kafkaesque system where they have little, if any, voice.
Without advocates, some poor defendants serve jail time longer than the law requires or plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit just to get out of jail. A few, as has been documented, receive the death penalty or life in prison because their court-appointed lawyers were incompetent, lazy, or both. Most shocking, says Norman Lefstein, who chaired the American Bar Association's Indigent Defense Advisory Group, "is the lack of overall real success, the lack of progress" given the overwhelming evidence that inadequate counsel often leads to wrongful conviction. The many cases we know about "likely are only the tip of the iceberg," he says. "This is an enormous problem."
Kicking and screaming. It's also quite a complicated one. The federal government has been slow to the game, both in providing funds or setting rules. That means that each state, and often each county, is left to its own devices on deciding how to fund and institute indigent-defense programs. Funding is a perpetual problem. In New York alone, there are more than 95 different systems. Sometimes, representation is determined by whichever lawyer bills taxpayers the least, no matter that the lawyer could have a full load of other pending cases.
It's not hard to see why the bottom line has such pull. Most states have a hard time coming up with the necessary dollars for indigent-defense programs, and only 27 attempt to provide full funding. That leaves already-strapped cities and counties on the hook for most of the costs--costs that must be weighed against local needs, from new roads to sewer upgrades and firehouses.