Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that everyone who is charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney. In Gideon v. Wainwright, Justice Hugo Black observed for the court that "in our adversary system, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him." As a prosecutor, as a judge and as our nation's attorney general, I have seen this reality firsthand.
Despite the promise of the court's ruling in Gideon, however, the U.S. indigent defense systems which provide representation to those who cannot afford it are in financial crisis, plagued by crushing caseloads and insufficient resources. And this year's forced budget reductions, due largely to sequestration, are further undermining this critical work.
In stark contrast to many state defender programs, the federal public defender system has consistently served as a model for efficiency and success. According to court statistics, as many as 90 percent of federal defendants qualify for court-appointed counsel, and the majority of criminal cases prosecuted by the Justice Department involve defendants represented by well-qualified, hardworking attorneys from federal defender offices. Yet draconian cuts have forced layoffs, furloughs (averaging 15 days per staff member) and personnel reductions through attrition. Across the country, these cuts threaten the integrity of our criminal justice system and impede the ability of our dedicated professionals to ensure due process, provide fair outcomes and guarantee the constitutionally protected rights of every criminal defendant.