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States Must Confront the Constitutional Crisis of Public Defenders

In an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News, Laura Arnold and Doug Deason call on policymakers to fulfill the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright.

More than 60 years have passed since the Supreme Court first required states to provide legal counsel for criminal defendants unable to afford their own, and yet the nation has still failed to properly uphold this critical constitutional right. 

In an oped for the Dallas Morning News, Laura Arnold, co‐​founder and co‐​chair of Arnold Ventures, and Doug Deason, president of the Deason Foundation, call on counties, states and the federal government to fulfill the promise made in the unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright decision and ensure that public defender offices have the resources they need to do their jobs. 

Public defenders are among the most dedicated and passionate advocates for an effective criminal justice system,” they write. However, in state after state, public defender offices are overwhelmed, under-resourced and understaffed. Despite the constitutional guarantee, necessary resources simply aren’t flowing to public defenders.”

Their oped points to studies from the American Bar Association finding that states lacked the number of public defenders necessary to provide the constitutional minimum of effective assistance of counsel, and specifically referenced a report by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University that found a dire need for defense attorneys in rural Texas. 

As a result of this broken system, thousands of defendants are deprived of their constitutional rights and end up serving time behind bars that could have been avoided. 

Their criminal records translate into a lifetime of punishing consequences — such as prohibitions on business licenses, housing restrictions and exclusions from essential government programs,’ they write. Simply put, we are paying for a broken system and then paying again for the consequences of its dysfunction. This needs to stop.”

Read the full oped here: The constitutional crisis of public defenders