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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Indigent Defense


New Orleans, LA
United States

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Laurel [Bellows], for those kind words – and for your commitment to the important work of the American Bar Association. As you assume your new role as ABA President, I look forward to working with you to build on the progress that’s been made in recent years – through the support of so many of the people in this room, and under the leadership of my friend, Bill Robinson. Although I’m sorry that President [Bill] Robinson couldn’t be with us today, I want to thank him for his engagement on – and dedication to – the issues we’ve gathered to discuss. I’d also like to thank Bob Stein, Chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Indigent Defense and Legal Aid; and Executive Director [Norman] Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – along with everyone who worked so hard to bring us together this weekend – for your efforts in planning and preparing for today’s important Summit.

It’s a pleasure to be back in New Orleans, and a privilege to join with so many distinguished leaders and essential partners – from members of the bench, such as Judge [Andre] Davis and Judge [Vanessa] Ruiz; to leaders of legal defense associations like NLADA; to key members of the private bar, the academic community, and nonprofit and legal advocacy organizations – in discussing how we can, and why we must, take our indigent defense efforts to the next level.

In this conversation, every person here provides valuable expertise and – perhaps most importantly – a commitment to progress. That’s why this Summit is so critical – and why I’m so grateful to be part of it. Over the years, through gatherings like this one, the ABA and NACDL have helped not only to raise awareness about the indigent defense issues that impact the bar – but to remind every member of our nation’s legal community of the sacred responsibilities we share, as well as the challenges that we must address.

Especially in this time of economic difficulty – when government budgets are on the chopping block, and so many of us have been asked to meet growing demands with increasingly limited resources – the obstacles we face have been brought into stark focus. And the need to take action has never been more clear – or more urgent. And that’s true nationwide.

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.

As a result, too many defendants are left to languish in jail for weeks, or even months, before counsel is appointed. Too many children and adults enter the criminal justice system with nowhere to turn for guidance – and little understanding of their rights, the charges against them, or the potential sentences – and collateral consequences – that they face. Some are even encouraged to waive their right to counsel altogether.

Now, I know you’re here today because you’ve heard these stories. You’ve seen the alarming statistics. And some of you have experienced this harsh reality firsthand, in the communities where you live and practice. So I don’t need to tell you that this represents a crisis – one that the ABA and other organizations have been working for decades to overcome.

Ever since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright – handed down fifty years ago next March – it has been settled law that the Constitution requires defendants in criminal cases to be provided with legal counsel, even if they cannot afford an attorney. Yet, as we come together this afternoon – in jurisdictions here in Louisiana and 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. And far too many public defender systems lack the basic tools they need to function properly.

Fortunately, the American Bar Association has responded to this crisis not with despair, but with dedication, optimism, and a plan of action. For years, ABA members have taken a leadership role in advocating for quality indigent defense systems. You’ve laid out important guidelines and policies for improving legal representation for disadvantaged populations. In many cases, you’ve lent your time and expertise to help make these policies a reality. And – through the Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System that the ABA released exactly a decade ago – you’ve not only given shape to our aspirations, but quite literally set the standard, and developed a framework for progress.

Alongside key partners like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – which has made meaningful, measurable strides in engaging the private bar – you’ve also led the way in rallying others to this cause. Just last month, with the support of a grant from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the ABA and NACDL convened a Focus Group comprised of 18 successful reformers from across the legal community – from prosecutors and defense attorneys; to leaders from state governments and NGOs; and of course federal partners like our very own Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, Director Denise O’Donnell, and representatives from the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative.

Together, this diverse group worked to develop concrete strategies for reforming our nation’s indigent defense systems, and to identify actions that the Justice Department can take to help facilitate this work. Their findings – which I had the chance to review earlier this week – will undoubtedly guide reform efforts long into the future. And their recommendations will reinforce the robust commitment that the Department has already demonstrated.

Nowhere is this commitment more clear than in the work of our Access to Justice Initiative – a landmark office that was launched nearly two years ago to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status or income. Under excellent leadership – first, from the legendary Professor and Constitutional scholar, Larry Tribe; and, today, from Senior Counselor Mark Childress – the Access to Justice staff has collaborated with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners – to broaden access to quality legal representation, to highlight best practices, and to bring new allies into this work. Although Mark will soon be departing to become a White House Deputy Chief of Staff – and although we will miss him – I can assure you that this work remains as strong as ever, and will continue to be a key area of focus for the Department, and for me.

In fact, as we speak – through Access to Justice, the Office of Justice Programs, and a number of other components – the Department is moving to develop and implement a series of concrete steps to help us better understand and address the indigent defense crisis. And I am proud to announce two of these important steps today.

In a few weeks, OJP’s National Institute of Justice will begin officially soliciting applications for grants to support research on the fundamental issues surrounding access to legal services – and the need for quality representation – at the state and local level. Although we currently have a basic knowledge of some of the concerns at play, OJP’s track record indicates that – with rigorous, scientific study, our understanding of the barriers that defendants commonly face in securing effective representation will grow – and our ability to address and remove these obstacles will significantly improve. Of course, in light of recent budgetary challenges, funding for this type of research – however critical – has been particularly difficult to secure. That’s why I am especially pleased to announce that NIJ has made this forthcoming grant solicitation a top priority – and that we are prepared to invest up to $1 million in research projects focused on indigent defense.

This represents the largest single commitment that the Department has ever made for this purpose – and it presents an exciting opportunity to take a close look at an under-studied set of issues. Although this is an historic move – and although enhancing our understanding of this crisis is essential – it’s only the first part of the equation.

I mentioned ABA’s “Ten Principles” just a moment ago. Like many of you, I consider them to be an essential guidepost for ensuring that our indigent defense efforts are as effective – and as efficient – as possible. This afternoon, I am pleased to announce another new grant program – administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance – that will help to make these Principles a reality.

This spring, BJA will release a solicitation to award grants to jurisdictions – and their partners – to use in directly supporting oversight of public defender and assigned counsel systems; to help ensure access to counsel for defendants at the earliest stage of criminal proceedings; to provide the structure and support necessary for members of the private bar to get involved in this work; and to reduce caseloads and help ease burdens on all elements of the criminal justice system.

Here in Louisiana, I know your legislature has adopted a resolution creating a task force to help implement the Ten Principles in advancing your reform efforts. In other states like Pennsylvania – where a commission recently issued a report highlighting the importance of the ABA Principles – similar efforts are also underway. And this afternoon, I am proud to announce that the Justice Department stands ready to support this kind of work – and the advancements that are taking place in countless jurisdictions across the country – by dedicating as much as $1.4 million to this new grant program.

These initiatives represent an unprecedented level of support – from this Justice Department, and from the Administration as a whole – for reforming America’s legal system, and improving its ability to serve those who find quality representation to be out of reach. But these two grant solicitations are only the tip of the iceberg – and it’s important to note that they build on a wide array of efforts that are already in progress.

I am also pleased to announce a series of additional measures to strengthen indigent defense. The Department will keep working to bring stakeholders together – including law enforcement, court officials, prosecutors, indigent defense providers, and corrections officers – to refine and strengthen existing programs, such as Byrne-JAG, and to ensure that their impact is considered across the criminal justice system. In fact, we will soon be issuing new guidelines for Byrne-JAG recipients, designed to encourage stakeholders to come together in a comprehensive criminal justice planning process.

At the same time, we’re developing a national-level “Census of Public Defender Offices” to provide a snapshot of the work that’s taking place across the country, and to help identify best practices and assess the training and resource needs in the field. We’re partnering with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Defender Services to offer free training sessions to defenders, prosecutors, and judges who serve Indian Country – the first time such an effort has ever been undertaken. And we’re working closely with the ABA to examine the collateral consequences that often accompany certain convictions – and to determine whether those consequences which create barriers to work and civic opportunities should be eliminated.

In this study; in the critical discussions you’re hosting here in New Orleans; and in the ten defining principles you’ve been advancing for the last ten years – at every turn, the ABA and NACDL have stepped up, and spoken out, for indigent defense. As Attorney General of the United States, I am proud to do so as well.

Your efforts have expanded and improved this work through events like this Summit. They’ve helped the Justice Department and other partners come together to move the ball forward. And they have inspired generations of lawyers – and even law students – to serve as sound stewards of America’s legal system.

This afternoon, we can all be encouraged by the progress that you and so many others have helped to achieve in recent decades – not to mention the advancements that lie ahead, thanks to the resources that our new grant programs will soon be bringing to this fight.

But, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision – and move to confront the challenges that remain before us – we must also recognize that this is no time to become complacent.

As we build on this work, let us seize the opportunity to ensure that it becomes not just our shared priority, but our common cause. Let us redouble our efforts not merely to win cases, but to do justice. And let us come together – in the spirit of fidelity to the law, and in service of those it protects and empowers – to realize the promise of our justice system for all Americans.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015