Criminal Justice System for the Poor, 6th Amendment and Speedy Trial

>> Thursday, October 2, 2008

If a US citizen is accused of a crime they are guaranteed the right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The effect of this is that a person accused of a crime has a set number of days after his arrest and arraignment until he has to stand trial. This varies by jurisdiction, in California it is 60 Days. Most defendants however choose to waive this time. The prefer to take their time and to build a defense let the witnesses get a little farther away from the time of the incident. The generally have this option because the courts are so overbooked that offering a time waiver relieves stress on the system. If everyone demanded a speedy trial at the same time many courts would simply lack the capacity to deal with that.

It has become established practice to simply waive time. However, should you choose to, you can withdraw that waiver and the government has to get the ball rolling. They frown on this type of action because it ads stress to the system and so they move things around to accommodate but they may not be so forgiving in the plea bargain dealings. There is always the possibility though that the government forgets about you or that somehow your 60 days lapse. At that point you get to go free. Those are the typical circumstances surrounding the speedy trial. The Supreme Court is preparing to hear about a different aspect of the speedy trial that could have a large impact on the judicial system.

...Michael Brillon, who had been found guilty of domestic assault as a habitual offender and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison. The court said the three-year delay in bringing the case to trial had violated Mr. Brillon’s rights.

In urging the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, Vermont v. Brillon, No. 08-88, state prosecutors said the ruling was “a first in the history of American jurisprudence,” because the delays in question had largely been caused by Mr. Brillon’s own court-appointed lawyers. The general rule is that the right to a speedy trial is not affected by self-inflicted delays.

The Vermont Supreme Court acknowledged that, but said the delays in Mr. Brillon’s case had been caused by overburdened public defenders and so should be counted against the state.

“When, as in this case, a defendant presses for, but is denied, a speedy trial because of the inaction of assigned counsel or a breakdown in the public defender system,” Justice Denise R. Johnson wrote for the state court’s majority, “the failure of the system to provide the defendant a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial is attributable to the prosecution, and not defendant.”

The argument before the Vermont Supreme Court is available in an audio file here and is about 50 minutes long. The full opinion is here.

This case is important because it could provide a massive boost to the public defenders of America. Different jurisdictions have different ways of providing the public defenders that are needed in our justice system. Sometimes you gt contract attorneys, sometime pro bono attorneys, sometimes there is a public defenders office. Some have all three. In instances where there is a public defenders office it usually lags far behind its rival, the prosecutors office, in one very important aspect-- funding.

Its a dirty but not so secret fact that the criminal justice system in our country suffers from a disproportionate allocation of wealth and resources towards prosecution. People tend to think of the prosecution being out matched by expensive oj style defense teams but this is far from the average. Instead it usually the prosecution who have the financial advantage. Prosecutors get funded because of the need to be tough on crime. The effect of all of this is to create a system where the PDs are incredibly overworked and barely providing adequate service.

Currently, funding for public defenders is so low that it makes providing “effective” counsel nearly impossible.

While prosecutors have a limit on how many cases they may be forced to take, public defenders often have no caseload limit, or their limit is above the number of cases per year recommended by the American Bar Association.

With the extra funding they receive, prosecutors are able to afford expert witnesses and pay investigators. Under the weight of excessive caseloads and lesser funding, public defenders are unable to find the time to visit crime scenes, investigate opposition key witnesses, or the money to hire expert witnesses. Fees for expert witnesses are often taken directly out of an attorney’s wages.

In addition to difficult working conditions, public defenders are often paid $75,000 less than their corporate counterparts. Many good lawyers are unable to take these jobs because they are still paying off sizeable law school loans. This makes it difficult to find truly qualified attorneys willing to take public defender positions. The post is too often filled by sub par attorneys unable to find jobs elsewhere or lawyers straight out of law school with no experience in the courtroom.

In Washington State 76% of defendants plead guilty. Unfortunately, due to impossibly large caseloads the practice of “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” lawyering is becoming more commonplace. In order to keep a case out of court, and thereby save time, a lawyer may meet with his client only on the morning of the trial and convince them to sign a plea bargain by persuading them that they will most likely be convicted and their sentence will be lighter if they plead guilty. With only moments to decide, many defendants are swayed, regardless of the fact that they may not be guilty.

If the court chooses to affirm the brillon holding that the right to a speedy trial can be compromised by the failure of court appointed public defenders it may signal a need for those resistant to fund the pd's offices in this country to increase the funding. Otherwise they might start to see defendants go free because the pds office cannot handle the case load and fails to get defendants to trial. It would also be a validation of the public defender system.

It is the poorest of citizens who rely on the pd's office. minorities, the working poor the disadvantaged are the ones who get screwed over by the lack of funding. It is more than just a budget or fairness issue for the personnel in the office it is a question of fundamental human rights. The poor deserve to have their interests looked after too. This is a human rights issue.


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