One of the bedrock principles of American society is that all peopleâ€”whether rich or poorâ€”are entitled to justice. As a nation, justice is the tie that binds us.
Yet for a variety of complex and interrelated reasons, our justice system is in crisis: legal aid and public defender programs are severely underfunded; attorney caseloads are overwhelming; people are turned away without representation. The evidence of this crisis abounds.
The Legal Services Corporation estimated that in 2009 it was unable to serve almost one million people who sought assistance. At the height of our nationâ€™s economic downturnâ€”with poverty at an historic high and evictions, unemployment and foreclosures at epidemic levels, for every person that was served by a legal services program, one eligible person was turned away. In New Jersey and the District of Columbia, a stunning 99 percent of defendants in housing eviction cases are unrepresented by counsel. In Texas, 86 percent of immigration detainees face deportation without a lawyer during an unprecedented period of immigration enforcement.
On the public defense side, in its 2009 report, Justice Denied, The National Right to Counsel Committee, in partnership with NLADA, asserted that â€śthere is a shocking disconnect between the system of justice envisioned by the Supreme Courtâ€™s right to counsel decisions and what actually occurs in many of this nationâ€™s courts.â€ť
In Alabama more than half of the 200 people on death row were represented by court-appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1,000. Attorneys in the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office found sentencing errors in one-third of the guilty plea appeals assigned to their office between 2003 and 2007. In Maryland, indigent defendants appear at bail hearings without counsel because the public defenderâ€™s office does not have adequate funds to assign attorneys. In California, public defender offices are funded at only half the level in which prosecution offices are funded, although they represent 85 percent of defendants charged with serious crimes.
Despite the constitutional guarantee of a right to counsel in criminal proceedings and the governmentâ€™s recognition of the need to provide counsel to low-income people in civil cases, access to competent counselâ€”access to justiceâ€”remains an elusive promise. The results of these systemic failures are predictably devastating â€¦ for the thousands of people who have been forced out of their homes because of illegal evictions â€¦ for returning veterans trying to get health care â€¦ for individuals who are falsely accused, imprisoned for lengthy periods before trial and who, due to inadequate representation, receive sentences for crimes they did not commit â€¦ for people facing life changing legal issues, who canâ€™t afford to pay for a lawyer â€“ the consequences can be insurmountable. Access-to-counsel systems that provide quality legal services promote fairness in the administration of justice, improve public safety and accountability, reduce racial inequality and create opportunities that support individual, family and community well-being. In short, they secure the promise of justice on which America was founded.
The proliferation of such outcomes is NLADAâ€™s goal as it begins its second century.