And Justice For All?

“We have scores of people who are being damaged through a criminal justice system because they don’t have counsel and their livelihood is being taken away, their liberty is being taken away.”


If you're arrested, you can expect certain things to happen: You'll likely feel handcuffs clinch around your wrists, you'll get booked, and there's a good chance you'll see the inside of a jail cell. According to the Miranda Rights that your arresting officer is required to recite, you will have the right to an attorney; if you can't afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

In the landmark 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, "Any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."

But justice for all may not be the order of the day in Idaho as court watchdogs claim--and studies confirm--that the Gem State is rife with inconsistency, at best, and probable civil-liberties violations, at worst. In fact, Idaho ranks near the bottom in the nation for indigent defense system costs, while some public defenders continue to handle the equivalent of four attorneys' workloads.

"We have some really talented, really wonderful, dedicated people who want to help their clients. And they can't. We have a broken system that allows counties to engage in flat fee contracts with public defenders with growing caseloads that exceed the American Bar Association guidelines," said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

"It is the legislators in our state and the key stakeholders and the entire justice system that need to stand up to say, 'We think that the ideals within the Constitution are worth preserving and we want a constitutional system,'" Hopkins said.

A trio of bills that passed the Idaho House are designed to address some of the complaints outlined in a 2010 study--The Guarantee to Counsel: Advocacy and Due Process in Idaho's Trial Courts, by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association--that found Idaho fails to provide defendants who cannot afford attorneys with the level of representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The study indicates that the competency of county-based indigent defense systems varied greatly.

"The [Idaho] Constitution and the [U.S.] Supreme Court for 50 years have been clear that [public defense] is not a county responsibility under the Constitution," said Hopkins. "It is a state responsibility under the Constitution."

According to the 2010, 135-page study by NLADA: "By delegating to each county the responsibility to provide counsel at the trial level without any state funding or oversight, Idaho has sewn a patchwork quilt of underfunded, inconsistent systems that vary greatly in defining who qualifies for those services. ... None of the public defender systems evaluated are constitutionally adequate."

"We have scores of people who are being damaged through a criminal justice system because they don't have counsel and their livelihood is being taken away, their liberty is being taken away," said Hopkins "At some point, there needs to be a connection that real lives are at stake here."

The NLADA study found that Idaho's county-based indigent defense system costs $7.83 per capita--$3 less than the national average--ranking Idaho 42nd in the country in public defense spending. The study also found caseloads in Idaho counties fall below par, with some public defenders handling the workload of four attorneys and dedicating as little as one hour and 10 minutes to single cases. The report found that in Ada County alone, the unprecedented number of first-degree murder cases in 2007 left the public defender's office "unable to ensure the workloads are limited to a level that enables counsel to provide each client with high quality legal representation."

"Recognizing that we were vulnerable in Idaho and that it could cost us perhaps millions of dollars if we were sued, and perhaps people's convictions could be overturned, we thought we should fix this system," said attorney and Boise Democratic Rep. Grant Burgoyne, who has sponsored a series of bills that he said represents the beginning of indigent defense reform in Idaho.

The measures have already won overwhelming bipartisan support at the Statehouse.

House Bill 147 more uniformly defines the criteria in which a judge will determine if someone is provided a public defender. House Bill 148 clarifies that a juvenile defense lawyer may not serve in dual capacities as an attorney and guardian ad litem, and House Bill 149 defines when a juvenile can be appointed a public defender and limits the circumstances when a juvenile can waive the right to counsel.

"Juveniles facing delinquency proceedings are an afterthought to the troubled adult system ... When they are brought to court and given a public defender who has no resources and a caseload that dictates he dispose of cases as quickly as possible, the message of neglect and worthlessness continues," said David Carroll, NLADA's director of research.

Hopkins added that even if the bills do become law, the state's indigent defense system still wouldn't align with constitutional requirements. But a recently introduced House Resolution would task lawmakers to create a committee to explore the problems that NLADA notes are "more a result of the evolution of a system begun decades ago and not an affirmative attempt on the part of state and local policymakers to deny anyone's constitutional rights."

"People who are charged with crimes don't win popularity contests," said Burgoyne, "and people don't like to spend money on them, but the House recognized that this is important."

Watchdogs say Idaho's county-based system leaves some defendants in the same position as Clarence Gideon, who in 1961 was found by Panama City, Fla., police near a burglarized pool room with a few coins and a pint of wine in his pocket. Hopkins said its not unusual for some Idahoans to find themselves in Gideon's shoes: accused, broke and without a lawyer.

"Some of the stories that we have heard [are] like: 'I never even saw my public defender,' or, 'The judge told me to work out a deal with the prosecutor and if I couldn't work out a deal with the prosecutor then I'd be appointed counsel,'" said Hopkins. "We received a letter that said, 'My public defender told me I should plead guilty because no fucking Mexican would get a fair trial in the state of Idaho.'"

In 1961, Gideon asked for a lawyer but a judge refused, telling Gideon he had to pay for counsel. Following a trial where Gideon was forced to defend himself, he was convicted and sent to a Florida state prison, where he studied law and reaffirmed his belief that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. In a handwritten petition, Gideon asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. The justices listened and ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires states to provide effective legal counsel to criminal defendants that cannot afford an attorney.

"We don't want a system where just because you're poor, you're vulnerable. It's really a matter of civil liberties and ensuring that the government doesn't overstep them," Burgoyne said. "These bills that we're introducing at the Statehouse this year are probably the beginning and not the end."