A coalition of criminal reform advocates joined The Constitution Project in supporting reforms to protect the constitutional right to counsel for poor people facing misdemeanor charges. In a letter sent to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in advance of a May 13 hearing on the issue, the groups wrote that “the denial of the 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel in adult and juvenile misdemeanor cases has serious repercussions, undermining citizens’ faith in the fairness and reliability of our criminal justice system.”
The letter noted that misdemeanors account for approximately 80% of the criminal docket in state courts across the country, and that counsel is often unavailable or unconstitutionally waived in many of these cases. Citing TCP’s recent report Don’t I Need a Lawyer?, the groups pointed out that the most glaring examples of these deficiencies occur at first appearance, the proceeding at which charges are read and, when applicable, pretrial release conditions are determined. Aside from the stigma of a criminal conviction and a jail sentence, misdemeanors carry the potential loss or denial of professional licenses, benefits and employment opportunities, the letter said.
“Every year, thousands of individuals’ first and only exposure to our criminal justice system is a misdemeanor court system that does not reflect American values or the Constitution precepts. Shining a light on these issues is the first step in bringing accountability and justice to a system that has been ignored for too long,” the groups wrote.
Joining TCP in signing the letter were the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the National Association for Public Defense, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Right on Crime and the Southern Center for Human Rights.
In a separate letter to the committee chair, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), TCP President Virginia Sloan said, “Congressional attention to the crisis in our indigent defense system is a welcome development.” She noted TCP’s longstanding involvement in the issue, including a comprehensive report issued by the National Right to Counsel Committee in 2009. Many of the reforms suggested in that report were crafted in view of the federal government’s role in and capacity to improve access to justice for misdemeanor and other defendants, Sloan said.