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Associate Attorney General West Delivers Remarks at the International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems


United States

Thank you, Jennifer [Smith of the International Legal Foundation] for your kind words.  On behalf of the United States, it is a privilege to be here with all of you today at this historic international convening on criminal legal aid.  I want to thank Minister [of Justice and Correctional Services Michael] Masutha, Judge President Mlambo, the Government of the Republic of South Africa, Legal Aid South Africa, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the United Nations Development Programme, and the International Legal Foundation, for coordinating this important gathering so that we may, together, explore how to strengthen and improve access to criminal legal aid around the world.

And equally important, I want to thank all of you -- the gathered Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Attorneys General, Supreme Court Justices, and criminal legal aid providers and experts -- for participating in this conference.  Your presence here epitomizes the dual truths that all free people, wherever they may live, lay valid claim to equality in the eyes of the law, and that the majesty of the law finds its best and highest use in the service of justice.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of being in New York, during the opening of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, to participate in a side-event to the High-Level Meeting on the Rule of Law hosted by the Permanent Mission to the U.N. of the Republic of South Africa.  And during that event, I was honored to express the United States' strong support for the U.N. Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.  The principles articulated in that document 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.” 

And now we have come here, to the land of Madiba and in the spirit of Ubuntu, to rededicate ourselves to the urgent task of making real the principle at the core of the U.N. Principles, articulated in the Lilongwe Declaration a decade ago, and reiterated in so many of your national constitutions, as well as mine: a criminal justice system is not just if it fails to guarantee a right to competent counsel through legal aid. 

For the United States, that constitutional right to counsel is a cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system.  And my country's best articulation of this fundamental principle originated not with an august conference of learned judges and justice ministers, or by a declaration of universal rights and aspirations; its origins were much more humble than that.  It started with the arrest of a man once described as a drifter and petty thief.

His name was Clarence Gideon.  And in 1961, he was arrested for breaking into a pool hall and stealing about five U.S. dollars in change from a cigarette vending machine.  At his trial, Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer, saying he was too poor to hire one himself.  The presiding judge denied Gideon’s request, and, after representing himself at trial, Gideon lost and was convicted and sentenced to five years.

From the confines of his jail cell, Gideon wrote a simple, five-page plea asking the United States Supreme Court to grant him a new trial with appointed counsel.  “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,” he said, “is very simple.  I did not get a fair trial.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately heard Gideon's plea and, in a milestone judicial opinion that bears his name, the justices established the principle that our Constitution guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to a lawyer whether that person can afford one or not.  Gideon received a new trial – this time with the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer – and this time, he was acquitted.

I think it speaks volumes that if you visit Washington D.C. today -- and I know that many of your countries will be represented in Washington soon for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that President Obama is hosting in August -- you will find Gideon’s humble, handwritten five-page petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, penciled on prison stationary, sitting in our National Archives, alongside our Nation's most treasured documents: the Declaration of Independence that created our country; the Bill of Rights which protected our liberty; and the Emancipation Proclamation that eradicated the scourge of slavery from our land.

And in the five decades since the Gideon case was decided, the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to refine this important and basic right -- expanding the right to counsel to juveniles and in certain misdemeanor cases. 

So for the United States, the right to counsel is a principle that represents the most basic notions of fundamental fairness.  But it also reflects the aspirations of a Nation that is still very much a work in progress. 

Because the challenge of effective criminal legal aid and fairness in the criminal justice system are issues that the United States has been grappling with since its founding.  At times, we have made great strides, committing resources, energy and ideas to the task.  At times, we have fallen short of our own ideals.  And with each triumph and setback, we are reminded that justice is as much a journey as it is a destination -- as much a process as it is an outcome -- and that the fairest criminal justice system gives equal attention to both.

Addressing this challenge is something that our nation's Attorney General, Eric Holder, has made a priority of his tenure in office.  In his first year, he launched the Access to Justice Initiative -- an effort that I oversee at the U.S. Department of Justice and which seeks to ensure 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 criminal defense for the poor by focusing on many of the same values outlined in the U.N. Principles and Guidelines.

Our work through the Access to Justice Initiative has helped to raise awareness about the urgent need that exists in indigent criminal defense in the United States.  The lawyers who provide legal aid to criminal defendants -- we call them public defenders -- too often they are overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed by the need for criminal defense services among the poor.

In response, the Access to Justice Initiative -- which is fortunate to have the leadership of Maha Jweied, the Acting Deputy Counselor of Access to Justice and a participant in this week's conference -- has supported piloting programs that test innovative indigent criminal defender services throughout our country and identified best practices that can improve the way we serve indigent clients who need legal representation.

There are other steps we've taken to make real our commitment to legal aid in the criminal justice system.  One of the most comprehensive is an effort launched by our Attorney General aimed at reforming and improving our criminal justice system in ways that not only improve access to justice and public safety, but also saves money and more effectively deploys our limited criminal justice resources. 

We call it the "Smart on Crime" initiative.  It's a reform effort based on the premise that while aggressive enforcement of our criminal statutes remains our Justice Department's central law enforcement mission, experience teaches us that we cannot arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.  Over the last three decades, the United States has enjoyed great success -- for a variety of reasons -- in bringing down violent crime rates.  Yet over that same time period, our prison populations have exploded by more than 800 percent, requiring the commitment of greater and greater resources. 

And for those offenders who are non-violent and low-level, it's not clear that spending increasing amounts of our nation's treasure to incarcerate them is a sound investment in public safety; indeed, there may be better, less expensive ways of keeping our communities safe while at the same time holding offenders like these accountable and reducing the likelihood they will return to prison after they've been released. 

So to truly be effective, our Smart on Crime initiative encourages our law enforcement officials at both the federal and state levels to focus on other aspects of criminal justice, like crime prevention, reducing over-incarceration and facilitating the successful reentry of individuals back into their communities after release.

Because if our experience in the United States teaches us anything, it is that building a better criminal justice system is always unfinished business.  Like our nation itself, our criminal justice system is in a state of constant self-evaluation, constant self-improvement, constant reform.  And our participation in this important conference is but one part of that infinite process.

So let me close where I began: by thanking all of you for your participation in this conference.  Because at the end of the day, after all of the keynote speeches are forgotten and resolutions adopted; after the outcome document is written and this conference center is empty, what will be left is the hard work of engaging in what I call "doing justice":  building criminal and civil legal systems that deliver the promise of dignity and equality before the law for every individual, regardless of who they are, their color or class, the god they worship or the person they love. 

"Doing justice" means embracing the aspirations expressed in the U.N. Principles and Guidelines while at the same time being honest with ourselves about addressing those areas where we fall short, where we can learn from one another, and where we can do better.  It's about becoming, to paraphrase an American statesman,  a society whose greatness is measured not by how it treats those at the top, but how it treats those who dance in the dawn of life, those who rest in the sunset of life, and those who struggle in the shadows of life; those who often work the hardest but have the least; those who know not the mainstream but life's margins.

And honorable guests, our hands -- yours and mine -- we must do that work.  We come here from the perches of privilege -- the privilege of being servants of the people we represent, and whose dreams and aspirations we strive to realize.  We must make the persuasive arguments in the halls of power for those who find no voice there.  We must take the bold steps, make the hard choices and, yes, even at times accept the political risks, because that is what building the future of fair and effective justice systems requires. 

And I am thankful to you because I know you are up to the task, or you would not be here today.  And I am grateful for the opportunity to be your partner in this endeavor, for there is much we can learn from you, much we can share with you, and so much we can achieve working with you; as we, in the writer's words, float "as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now that they are truly brothers,"  bound together by a shared commitment to the majesty that is the law and the justice that it must always serve.

Updated September 17, 2014