CDANY Marks The 60th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright
March 18 marks the 60th Anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, which created the right to an attorney for poor people who are accused of a crime. As we mark this anniversary, the Chief Defender’s Association of New York wishes we could be celebrating New York’s well-funded, fair criminal justice system. But, the reality is no cause for celebration.
Sixty years after Gideon, New York’s commitment to public defense and a fair and just legal system is still lackluster at best. New York State only started providing some funding for indigent criminal defense as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that they vigorously fought against for seven years. For decades prior to this settlement, funding of this important state function was left solely to the 62 individual counties. And, the State still continues to deny its obligations. State funding is virtually nonexistent for parents in Family Court as well as dramatically underfunded for attorneys representing children. Currently, New York State is actively opposing three lawsuits that are seeking a raise in assigned counsel (18-b) rates for attorneys who represent poor people on an hourly basis -- rates that have not been raised in almost twenty years. This has resulted in a shortage of attorneys to take on cases in criminal and family matters, leaving the promise of Gideon an empty one in many counties and courts throughout New York.
In 2019, New York finally turned a corner with fundamentally fair changes in discovery practices, bail legislation and how we treat youth accused of crimes. Yet since then, fearmongers have been obsessed with undoing these much-needed and long-overdue changes that made our criminal legal system more fair. Rollbacks on these issues would be a mistake and would push New York’s criminal legal system further away from the principals espoused in Gideon.
Discovery is the process by which the district attorney shares the evidence gathered by police with defense counsel. Discovery is directly related to the promise of the Gideon ruling, justice for clients through meaningful representation by attorneys. Prior to 2020, people accused of crimes and their attorneys were forced to defend themselves without knowing what the evidence against them was until their trial started (or never if they accepted a plea bargain). New York’s discovery laws now ensure full and transparent sharing of police reports, scientific and video evidence and witness statements. This allows defense counsel adequate time to review and investigate their cases. In turn, attorneys can give their clients meaningful advice on such important decisions such as whether to plead guilty or go to trial. Even so, there is constant targeting of this law by prosecutors rather than simply complying with the mandate of the new law. We cannot go backwards on discovery reform, as it has genuinely reinforced the true meaning of Gideon, which is that without the advice of an attorney, an accused person cannot be guaranteed justice.
New York also cannot go backward on bail reform. The 2019 bail legislation has been a success. According to the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Court Administration, as well as a number of other sources, the percentage of people rearrested while out on bail has remained the same since the bail legislation took effect. No data supports the conclusion that fairness in bail is causing any uptick in crime. Changes to the bail laws has reduced needless incarceration, kept people employed and families together. Moreover, the improved bail laws are only beginning to impact the drastic racial disparities that exist in incarceration rates.
Sixty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, New York still has a long way to go to effectuate the underlying concept of that landmark decision, which is to make our criminal legal system fair and just. Too many people are under the impression that tough-on-crime policies and longer sentences make us safe. They don’t. Such policies are irreparably and unnecessarily damaging to communities by making it more difficult for people to obtain a job or reach their educational and personal potential. Low-income communities need more support services such as affordable day care, better health care, including access to mental health and substance abuse services, and more job skills training programs. We cannot afford to waste another sixty years to achieve a fair and just criminal legal system promised by Gideon.