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50 Years Later, We Must Work to Fulfill the Promise of Gideon

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Ms. SCHAKOWSKY. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. This Supreme Court case established that all Americans have a right to counsel in criminal trials--even if they cannot afford it. The Gideon decision was clear: American citizens moving through the criminal justice system deserve appropriate representation under the law.

Unfortunately, fifty years after this case was decided, that promise of Gideon has not been fully realized. Today, ever increasing numbers of American citizens fall through the cracks in our justice system, sitting behind bars because they did not have access to legal representation.

On this important anniversary, we must commit ourselves to ensuring that all Americans have meaningful access to legal representation so that they are not left at the mercy of a justice system that is difficult to navigate and weighted against them. As Michelle Alexander's explains in The New Jim Crow, ``tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer.'' An article by Karen Houppert in this Sunday's Washington Post describes how ``one man, accused of burglary, sat in jail for more than a year while waiting for an attorney to be assigned to him.'' I believe that those situations are unconscionable. Wealth should not be required buy access to a responsive justice system. All Americans should have ready, meaningful access to an attorney when their futures and interests are at risk.

We must make sure that the services aimed at assisting the poor are adequately funded. Attorney General Holder has quite accurately referred to the ``crisis'' facing services that provide legal services to the poor. Today, public defenders have caseloads that are often hundreds of cases above the numbers recommended by the American Bar Association. With staff stretched that thin, the level of service provided in any one case inevitably suffers. As is noted in The New Jim Crow, ``...those who do meet with a lawyer for a drug offense often spend only a few minutes discussing their case and options before making a decision that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.'' We must make sure that the attorneys who are assisting low-income individuals have the ability and resources to do so in a way that is meaningful and effective.

We must also commit ourselves to broadening the scope of cases that warrant a right to legal counsel. Gideon applies only to criminal cases--legal issues like home foreclosures, job loss, spousal abuse and parental custody are not covered. Individuals in these situations may lose their homes, their livelihoods, or worse, because they do not have access to representation.

While these cases are ``civil'' in nature, they often carry a very real risk of jail time. I believe that Gideon should be applicable in these situations, because individuals facing a potential loss of liberty deserve the right to representation.

The Legal Services Corporation, which provides civil legal services to people who cannot otherwise afford them, received $70 million less in fiscal year 2012 than it did at its peak funding. This comes as the Legal Services Corporation is more strained than ever, helping low-income families dealing with the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. According to the New York Times, over 60 million Americans qualify for the Corporation's services, but 80% of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. Those numbers are disheartening and unacceptable and must be addressed.

I urge my colleagues to read the attached articles and to work to restore the meaning of the Gideon decision by ensuring that all individuals have meaningful access to legal counsel. [From the Washington Post, Mar. 15, 2013]

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