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Department of Justice Prioritizes Improving Legal Representation for Indigent Defendants

Almost 50 years ago the Gideon v. Wainwright decision determined that the Constitution required defendants in criminal cases to be provided with legal counsel, even if they cannot afford an attorney.   Yet all across this country – the basic rights guaranteed under Gideon have yet to be fully realized.   Millions of Americans still struggle to access the legal services that they need and deserve – and to which they are constitutionally entitled.   Speaking before the American Bar Association’s (ABA) National Summit on Indigent Defense, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a series of initiatives that the Justice Department will undertake to strengthen legal representation for individuals too poor to hire a lawyer to represent them in criminal proceedings.  As the Attorney General observed:
Across the country, public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed.  Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it’s rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate oversight. 
The Department’s Access to Justice Initiative has been working with many offices within the department to develop the following initiatives that advance Gideon and support  equal access to legal representation, regardless of income.  These efforts include the following: Strengthening Indigent Defense through Implemention of the ABA Ten Principles The ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System represent fundamental building blocks for implementing quality legal representation. Released in 2002, the principles list the ABA’s  recommendations for improving public defense delivery systems. These principles have been recognized by the Attorney General as, “an  essential guidepost for ensuring that our indigent defense efforts are as effective- and as efficient – as possible.” To help jurisdictions strengthen state, local, and tribal indigent defense systems, OJP’s Bureau of Justice Assistance will release $1.4 million of new discretionary grant funding to support projects that help make achievement of these principles a reality.  The BJA grant solicitation will be released this spring. Solicitations can be found on the BJA website and on   Bringing All Criminal Justice Stakeholders to the Table The Department of Justice’s Byrne-JAG program provides federal funding, in the form of formula grants, for states and localities to promote effective strategies across the criminal justice system.  The Attorney General has repeatedly encouraged all stakeholders of the criminal justice to work together in planning comprehensive criminal justice strategies supported by the Byrne-JAG program.  This way jurisdictions will help ensure that decisions are made with an eye toward impacting and strengthening the entire criminal justice system.  Expanding Research There is insufficient research on the barriers to effective representation in criminal matters.  To address this research gap, the department will invest up to $1 million to fund research projects that contribute to indigent defense knowledge and practice. This research will help policy-makers make better data-informed decisions. The grant solicitation  can be found on the NIJ website (PDF) and on   Access to Justice Initiative Since its launch in 2010, the Access to Justice Initiative has worked to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.  The Initiative’s staff works within the Department of Justice, across federal agencies, and with state, local and tribal justice system stakeholders to increase access to counsel and legal assistance, and to improve the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford lawyers. To support the development of quality indigent defense delivery systems, the ATJ resource page provides information identifying open grants, training and technical assistance that may be of particular interest to the defender community.   If you would like to learn more about the Access to Justice Initiative, visit
Updated April 7, 2017