Legal Aid Chief Attorney Defends Public Defenders And Articulates Steps To Realize The Promise Of Gideon

In response to a recent essay in Slate critical of public defenders, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society submitted the following letter to the Editor:

In the wake of the continuing reverberations of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Slate's July 15, 2013 essay "What If George Zimmerman Had A Public Defender" asks the wrong question about the state of public defense in the United States. All across the country there is indeed a crisis caused by lack of resources that heroic public defenders confront every day.

Our frontline lawyers and staff at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the nation's oldest and largest not-for-profit legal services organization serving low-income families and individuals with criminal, civil or juvenile rights problems, are answering a different question every day they come to work -- how can we make the promise of the right to counsel that the United States Supreme Court established in the landmark Gideon case 50 years ago real.

Here is what we know about the answer:

  1. clients accused of crimes, often wrongfully, must be represented by lawyers with proper caseloads -- which we are achieving with support from New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to bring down our caseloads by the April 1, 2014 - March 31, 2015 fiscal year to levels set by a groundbreaking State criminal defense caseload standard in New York City and an implementing court rule;
  2. clients must be represented by a criminal defense team that includes investigators, social workers, paralegals and supervisors which we deploy in accordance with judicial oversight standards that set specific staffing ratios
  3. criminal defense lawyers must be well-trained which we are accomplishing through a nationally recognized training program for both new and experienced lawyers; and
  4. clients must have access to comprehensive legal services to address the life-altering and often devastating consequences of criminal cases which we are providing by integrating our civil legal assistance and, where necessary, our juvenile rights representation with our criminal defense services.

Yes there is a crisis in criminal defense for persons who cannot afford counsel but there are solutions within reach if we as a nation have the will to pursue them as our Legal Aid staff does 365 days of the year.