Indigent Defense: International Perspectives and Research Needs

January 28, 2011

Attorney General Eric Holder has long spoken about America’s crisis in indigent defense.  The vast majority of criminal defendants in the United States are poor, yet there is insufficient funding and resources to meet their legal needs.  Given this shortage, it is critical to develop evidence-based research that identifies practices that  help to guarantee every person’s fundamental right to counsel and due process.  Earlier this week, the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) and the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) International Center jointly sponsored a workshop to help identify the best of these practices. 

The purpose of the  workshop was to identify both domestic and international best practices for representing low-income defendants and to devise a robust research agenda on criminal indigent defense in the United States.  The 40-person group consisted of leading experts drawn from multidisciplinary communities, including domestic and international practitioners, researchers, advocates and government officials.  People came from nine countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Finland.

The workshop was a timely successor to the Department’s recent celebration of Robert F. Kennedy’s achievements and enduring legacy.  In his welcoming remarks, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli reminded participants of Kennedy’s commitment to developing quality public defense systems and safeguarding the rights of indigent defendants.  The Associate  Attorney General reaffirmed, through the words of Kennedy himself, that indigent defense is a moral imperative:

“The poor man charged with crime has no lobby. Ensuring fairness and equal treatment in criminal trials is the responsibility of us all." 

Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson further emphasized that the issue is a crucial one for the Attorney General, stating that the defense bar is central to a strong justice system.

Recently retired Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court delivered the workshop’s keynote address.  Born and raised in South Africa, Chief Justice Marshall was a leader in student-led anti-apartheid efforts.  Appointed as the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1999, she led the court in making significant progress in guaranteeing adequate representation for indigent defendants.  In her remarks, she challenged participants to work together to not only identify ways to improve the circumstances faced by indigent defendants, but to raise the quality of that defense to the same caliber as that of a defendant  with means. 

Topics discussed at the workshop included:

  • The state of indigent defense in the United States;
  • Costs associated with being indigent in the criminal justice system;
  • Improvements to the provision of defender services to juveniles and to poor people;
  • The intersection of indigent defense and immigration; and
  • Indigent defense in indigenous communities.

Panelists from around the world and with a variety of perspectives gave thought-provoking presentations that informed a rigorous discussion. The workshop culminated in participants prioritizing specific, actionable measures aimed at improving indigent defense in the United States.  The report that will be generated from this workshop in the next six months will be used to inform ATJ’s priorities and NIJ’s future research agenda on indigent defense, including which alternative, international practices ATJ and NIJ might study to determine their viability domestically.

For more information on the Access to Justice Initiative, visit:  justice.gov/access

For more information on the National Institute for Justice, visit: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/

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