Justice News

Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of South Africa High-level Breakfast Meeting on “Access to Criminal Legal Aid”
New York, NY
United States
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thank you Stephen, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to be here today with Minister Radebe, Deputy Minister Kapanadze, Director Sandage, Ms. Rea, Judge President Mlambo, and all of the distinguished delegates in attendance.

I bring greetings from the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, who addressed the General Assembly and others earlier this week. Attorney General Holder often says that building a fair and effective justice system – a system that keeps citizens safe and maintains its legitimacy in the eyes of everyone it serves – has never been more difficult, nor more urgent, than right now. So it's a privilege for me to join you today in that spirit.

As the acting Associate Attorney General, I am the third-ranking official at the U.S. Justice Department, and I oversee a number of the Department's components including the Civil Rights Division; the Office of Justice Programs, which is the Department's grant-making division; and the Access to Justice Initiative, a unique effort that I'll say more about in a moment. So I'm particularly pleased to participate in this discussion of criminal legal aid, or indigent defense, as we call it in the United States.

Nearly fifty years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle that the United States Constitution guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to the assistance of legal counsel, regardless of whether that person can afford an attorney. That right to counsel is a principle so unremarkable to the contemporary ear that it would be easy to think that its existence was inevitable.

But if the arc of history bends toward justice -- and I believe it does -- then it bends not by it's own weight but by the hands of those who dare to reach.

And sometimes those hands are among the most modest.   

Clarence Gideon had been described as a drifter and petty thief. In 1961, he had been arrested of breaking into a pool hall, stealing some bottles of alcohol and about five dollars in change from a cigarette vending machine. At his trial, he asked the court for a lawyer, saying he was too poor to hire one himself. The trial judge denied Gideon's request. After representing himself, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years.

From the confines of his prison cell, Gideon wrote a simple, five-page plea to the United States Supreme Court to hear his case.

"It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any," Gideon wrote. "The question is very simple," he said. "I did not get a fair trial. . . . I requested the court to appoint me [an] attorney and the court refused."

Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Gideon, and he received a new trial, and this with the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer, he was acquitted of the crime he had been previously convicted.

Today, Gideon's humble, handwritten petition, penciled on prison stationary, sits in the United States National Archives, along with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is there, of course, because it is a part of our American Experience; evidence of a Nation in the constant state of becoming a more perfect Union.

And there is no doubt that, in the last five decades, the United States has made important strides to solidify the right to counsel with substance and meaning -- such as the Supreme Court's 1967 decision In re Gault, which held that the Constitutional right to counsel applied to juveniles, thereby solidifying the provision of legal counsel to poor juvenile and adult defendants as a cornerstone of our Nation’s criminal justice system. Yet, while there's no doubting such progress, we also know that much work remains.

We know that access to counsel is necessary, but alone it is not sufficient, because fairness demands that the legal representation provided be effective. We know that too often, the reality is that public defenders and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed. We know that too often, insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight can render the right to counsel an unfulfilled promise to many poor defendants.

We know all of these challenges still persist; and yet our resolve to uphold the fundamental Constitutional right to defense counsel remains steadfast.

That is why, in March 2010, Attorney General Holder launched the Access to Justice Initiative, an effort to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable and accessible to everyone in the United States regardless of wealth or status. Much of the work of this initiative is directed at strengthening indigent defense by focusing on many of the same values outlined in the UN Guidelines and Principles on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.

Our work through the Access to Justice initiative and other efforts aimed at making our justice system more fair has underscored the need for additional research about what works best when we try to strengthen and support indigent defense systems.

So today, I am pleased to announce that the National Institute of Justice – the research, development and evaluation agency of the Justice Department—will be providing $1.6 million in grants to support important research that will examine indigent criminal defense services, policies and practices.

The four awardees are the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association, Georgetown University, and the Vera Institute of Justice. These grant recipients will evaluate the impact of “holistic defense” approaches that address a defendant’s underlying social needs; examine the factors that lead juveniles to waive their right to be represented by counsel; and study the challenges facing attorneys who represent indigent defendants with mental health disorders.

What we learn from these studies will help us to better understand the barriers indigent criminal defendants face in securing effective legal representation, as well as assist us in identifying methods for removing those hurdles.

Now, in addition to funding the necessary research to improve the delivery of defender services for the poor, we at the Justice Department recognize that we must support innovations to improve the quality of indigent representation overall.

So I am also pleased to announce the four recipients of the Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance Answering Gideon’s Call grants, totaling $1.4 million. The awardees are: the Harris County Public Defender Office in Texas; the Delaware Office of Conflicts Counsel; the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services; and the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.

These awardees will use their grants to support projects that will enhance the quality of indigent defense, particularly at sentencing, in part through the training of court-appointed attorneys.

Finally, we also believe that establishing standards can be instrumental in raising the level of representation for defenders across the country. And it is for this reason that the United States strongly supports the UN Guidelines and Principles on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. These standards affirm that criminal legal aid “is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law.”

We believe these comprehensive guidelines and principles can be effective tools in strengthening and expanding existing criminal legal aid systems throughout the world, which is why the United States co-sponsored the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice’s resolution, along with the Republic of South Africa, Georgia, and 13 other countries and regional groups. And it's why the United States continues its pledge to support the adoption of the resolution on the Principles and Guidelines during the 67th session of the General Assembly.

So let me close where I began. The Constitutional right to counsel is part of the basic foundation of the U.S. criminal justice system. To put it simply, it's a principle that rests at the core of our concept of equal justice under the law. It's a principle that represents not just a reflection of our most fundamental values of fairness, but also the aspirations of a Nation that is still a work in progress. And it reminds us that that justice is as much a journey as it is a destination -- that justice is as much a process as it is an outcome -- and that we must give equal attention to both.

Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014