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February 11, 2005 - The American Bar Association

News Release:

New ABA Report Says Nation's Indigent Defense Systems "Mired In Crisis"

Country's Poorest Defendants At Risk of Wrongful Conviction

Contact: Robin L. Rone; Phone: 312-988-5106, Email:, online at:; en Español

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 11, 2005 - A new report released today by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants finds that 40 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the constitutional right to counsel in state criminal proceedings, the American legal system still fails to protect the rights of the nation's poorest defendants by not providing properly trained and prepared defense counsel. These failings largely stem from inadequate funding of indigent defense systems nationwide, and result in the risk of wrongful convictions.

The report, "Gideon's Broken Promise: America's Continuing Quest for Equal Justice," comes on the heels of President Bush's State of the Union address, in which he announced plans for expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction, as well as a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases. But as the ABA report makes clear, effective defense is linked to adequate funding of complete defense systems, not only in providing special training in a specific area.

The report culminates a year-long series of public hearings to examine whether the promise of the Gideon decision is being met. It has not been approved by the ABA's policy-making House of Delegates, and its recommendations do not represent official policy of the association unless otherwise stated in the report.

"Forty years after the Gideon decision, indigent defense in the United States is mired in a state of crisis," said Bill Whitehurst, chair of the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. "After holding year-long hearings in 2003 involving witnesses from 22 states, and then analyzing the extensive testimony we collected, we are troubled to find that nationwide most indigent defense systems are woefully inadequate. This is primarily due to a lack of resources, training, and overwhelming case loads. For poor people, this means they are at constant risk of being wrongfully convicted."

The report notes that in recent years mounting evidence of wrongful convictions proves that the phenomenon is much more common than once believed, with one study putting the number potentially as high as 10,000 annually nationwide. While there are many reasons why innocent people are convicted, the best defense against such miscarriages of justice is effective, well-trained defense lawyers.

In addition to its extensive findings, the report makes a number of recommendations on how the country can improve its indigent defense systems. Chief among the recommendations is the call for states to increase funding for indigent defense to a level that ensures uniform quality legal representation, and for the federal government to financially support the provision of indigent defense services in state courts as well.

"Effective defense is inextricably linked to adequate funding," said Whitehurst. "Without exception, witnesses from each of the 22 states examined in these hearings reported grave inadequacies in the available funds and resources for indigent defense."

The report finds that:

  • Lawyers who provide represe ntation in indigent defense systems sometimes are unable to furnish competent representation because they lack the necessary training, funding, time and other resources;
  • Too often lawyers are not provided to defendants in proceedings in which a right to counsel exists. Prosecutors often seek to obtain waivers of counsel and guilty pleas from accused people without representation, while judges accept and on occasion encourage waivers of counsel that are not knowing, voluntary, intelligent, and on the record;
  • Indigent defense systems often lack basic oversight and accountability;
  • Reform efforts have been most successful when they represent a broad spectrum of approaches, services and interests;
  • Model approaches to providing indigent defense services do exist in the United States, but they often are not adequately funded and are difficult to duplicate without substantial financial support.

During 2003, the standing committee held four public hearings and received testimony from expert witnesses familiar with the delivery of indigent defense services in 22 states-Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Washington-representing a wide cross-section of regions, populations, and delivery systems.

In addition to increased funding of states' indigent defense systems, the report recommends that state governments establish oversight groups to ensure independence, uniformity and quality in the delivery of representation; lawyers and defense programs should refuse to accept new cases when their workloads are so excessive that to do so would compromise the quality of their legal services or would lead to the breach of their constitutional or professional obligations; and state and local bar associations, as well as other organizations, should be actively involved in evaluating and monitoring criminal and juvenile delinquency proceedings as well as in efforts to reform indigent defense systems.

The report also includes a number of recommendations for judges, such as fully respecting the independence of lawyers who represent indigent defendants, while also being willing to report those who violate their ethical duties and responsibilities. Judges should report prosecutors who try to obtain waivers of counsel and guilty pleas from defendants without representation, and they should never encourage anyone to waive their right to counsel.

To obtain the full report, go to

With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.

Editor's note: For further information on the report, contact Robin Rone, ABA Division for Media Relations and Communication Services, 312-988-5106, or visit the Online Media Kit. For more information about issues of indigent defense, visit the ABA Web site

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