In my time as an inmate at Attica Correctional Facility working in the law library, I’ve learned some startling facts about what indigent defendants can face. Indigent defendants—more than 80 percent of total defendants—often receive substandard counsel. A defendant may be innocent but still be convicted or urged to plead out by an attorney for a variety of reasons: The attorney is unwilling to argue a case before a jury due of a lack of confidence, a lack of skill or experience, or a lack of resources to bring a solid case. (I’ve also been repeatedly astonished by the errors I’ve encountered in legal briefs filed by degreed attorneys, but that’s another story.) Worse, when defendants are counseled to plead in order to avoid a jury trial, their attorneys may neglect to mention two important rights as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution: the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel and the Fourteenth’s right to due process.
Who’s to blame for this egregious failure to protect the rights of our nation’s underserved? We could blame state and local legislatures—and the federal government—for choosing to fund prison expansion rather than legal aid societies. We could blame those judges who merely rubber stamp cases in which prosecutors have done the hard work of interpretation and adjudication. We could also point a finger at the Supreme Court which has decided many cases on the subject of ineffective assistance of counsel—Strickland v. Washington, Padilla v. Kentucky, just to name two—decisions that have reduced a defendant’s claim to being unwinnable and meaningless. What’s happened here is a transformation of the American criminal justice system, from one where adversaries meet on neutral ground to seek justice to a de facto administrative regime committed to processing as many people as possible. Continue reading “Dispatch from Attica Correctional Facility — “…And justice for all”?: Indigent Defendants and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel”