Randolph Stone on What is Needed to Create an Effective Indigent Defense System

Defending the Future The Fundamental Right to Effective Defense Counsel
Randolph Stone
To Build a Better Criminal Justice System (The Sentencing Project's 25th Anniversary Publication)
April 10, 2012

Twenty-five years from now, every indigent person accused of crime will be defended by a lawyer who provides zealous and loyal representation. Depending on your familiarity with the American legal system, you probably either assume such representation already occurs—or that the prospect is a pipe dream. Either way, you’re wrong.

Criminal defense for the poor is chronically ineffective,a product of institutional racism. It exhibits
inadequate funding, high caseloads, sketchy training and supervision, failure of vision, and insufficient structural support. In too many instances, the defender is a cog in the plea bargain assembly-line, processing convictions and sentences.

Despite the chronic inadequacies, there are beacons of light pointing to effective criminal defense for all and, further, a fair, functional, and rational criminal justice system. What will be the key ingredients of an effective indigent defense system in 2036? In most jurisdictions, a professionally
administered system of appointed private counsel will supplement an institutional public defender office. Keeping the private bar involved (through appointments and/or pro bono programs) increases the possibilities for client choice of counsel and safeguards the integrity of the criminal justice system. To exercise the privilege of defending the poor, all lawyers will meet minimum standards of performance. Required rigorous and periodic training will focus on advocacy skills, cultural competency reflecting changing demographics, and client centered representation. Lawyers with a commitment to the clients will be recruited and encouraged to join public defender offices aided by expanded student loan forgiveness programs. The administrative structure of the indigent defense system will ensure appropriate caseload limits, supervision, and sufficient investigative, clerical, social service, and other support. An effective system will feature early entry and vertical representation (meaning a single attorney represents a client from arraignment through trial). Finally, staffing of the public defender office will reflect the diversity of the community.

Randolph N. Stone