Florida Death Penalty System

Faced with the problem of how to provide legal counsel to those who cannot afford to hire their own attorney after Gideon v. Wainwright, states have found three different approaches to meeting this constitutional mandate: (1) public defender programs (nonprofit organizations with staff attorneys assigned to the indigent); (2) contract counsel (the contracting firm or entity agrees to take all indigent representations for a set time period); and (3) assigned, court-appointed private practice lawyers

They are not mutually exclusive models; for example, a state can have a public defender system as well as having court appointments of attorneys in private practice. Sometimes, things are so varied within a state that the method of providing lawyers to the indigent will depend upon the county.  No one single answer to the problem of providing legal counsel to the poor has proven efficient or cost-effective since Gideon came down. 

Indigent Defense in Florida

In Florida, every county with a population of 35,000 or more must have a public defender program. However, as the 2009 Justice Denied report by the Constitution Project revealed, county budgets across Florida have been slashed steadily over the years, and public defender programs have lost millions of dollars in these budget cuts. Some Florida counties today actually charge indigent convicts fees to cover litigation costs. Others are refusing to take on new indigent defense cases, telling the courts that to do so will be unethical (and unconstitutional) as they simply cannot provide effective counsel given their limited resources. 

The financial challenges of providing indigent defense have been serious for over a decade. They have only been exacerbated by continuing judicial expansion of the constitutional right to counsel for the indigent defendant, e.g., to include juveniles (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 1967); those charged with misdemeanor crimes that carry jail sentences (Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972)); and indigent defendants in misdemeanor cases resulting in suspended or probated sentences ( Alabama v. Shelton,  535 U.S. 654 (2002)).

Combine the expansion of the right with the fact that the right to counsel begins the minute that an individual invokes that right, Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) (which most criminal defendants know is the wise thing to do before answering any questions from the police), and you have a lot of demand for effective legal counsel without enough supply. 

Continue Reading The Cost of a Life: Representing the Indigent Accused of Crimes in Florida Courts Today