Senate Committee Approves Technical Assistance for Localities on Right-to-Counsel Issues

On May 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted the Justice for All Reauthorization Act (S. 2577), introduced by Sen. John Cronyn (R-Texas).  Among its important provisions, the legislation includes a section giving the Department of Justice the ability to offer technical assistance to state and local governments in assuring the constitutionally-guaranteed right-to-counsel for all criminal defendants, marking the first time Congress has granted such authority, and approves an appropriation of $5 million to carry it out.  The Constitution Project provided advice and support to committee members in crafting the section.

In its landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment guarantees every criminal defendant access to a lawyer regardless of his or her ability to pay for one on their own.  However, more than five decades later, the state of public defense is in desperate need of reform, with public defenders typically under-resourced and asked to carry unreasonable caseloads.  Indigent defense services at the state and local levels, in particular, are widely considered to be woefully inadequate.  Inclusion of the section on technical assistance for localities on right-to-counsel issues is a small step toward alleviating this crisis.

Earlier in the year, more than 100 criminal justice and victim advocacy groups joined TCP in urging the Senate to adopt the legislation.  The technical assistance section in the bill helps to implement recommendations found in the National Right to Counsel Committee  2009 report, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel.

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