WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) announced the beginning of a new bicameral effort to fix America’s strained public defender system. Sen. Booker is introducing the Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016, legislation that seeks to address the indigent defense crisis in many states throughout the country. Rep. Maloney has introduced the Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016 in the House. The two will partner to advance the legislation through Congress.
“The right to counsel is a constitutional right guaranteed to all Americans. Sadly, all too often our broken justice system falls short of providing this right, and the consequences of these shortcomings is felt most acutely in low-income communities all across this country,” Sen. Booker said. “The Equal Justice Under Law Act seeks to fill in the glaring gaps that have left too many Americans vulnerable and without adequate legal representation. I will continue to work relentlessly to better balance the scales of justice so that we can truly be a nation of liberty and justice for all.”
“Fifty-three years after the Supreme Court reaffirmed our constitutional right to an attorney, public defenders are still juggling hundreds of cases and defendants are still meeting their lawyers only minutes before entering a guilty plea,” said Rep. Maloney. “Our criminal justice system is broken, and that disproportionately hurts poor Americans. The Equal Justice Under Law Act introduces a vital step to repair our broken system by giving indigent defendants the tools they need to secure their right to effective counsel before it is too late – giving all Americans, regardless of the size of their paycheck, equal justice under the law.”
Across our nation, public defender systems are in crisis. Public defender offices—if one exists in a state at all—are consistently underfunded. As a result, attorneys dedicated to defending the poor in criminal cases are unable to do their jobs effectively because they are underpaid and overworked. According to a 2012 Brennan Center report, there are counties and states in America where public defenders are responsible more than 300 cases at one time. This phenomena is not unique. In fact, 75 percent of county-funded public defender offices have caseloads that exceed recommended standards. Even the most talented and efficient attorneys are not able to dedicate the requisite time and energy to fulfilling their duty to zealously represent a client with such large caseloads.
The Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016 would:
· Create a federal cause of action that allows indigent criminal defendants to file a lawsuit against states and political subdivisions for systemic failures to provide effective assistance of counsel in felony cases;
· Permit litigants to file a class action lawsuit against states and localities for systemic failures to provide effective assistance of counsel in felony cases; and
· In the Senate version, it would require states to consult with representatives from the public defender community prior to distributing Byrne JAG funds.
Given the high caseloads that take public defenders away from their clients' cases, it is unsurprising that nearly 95 percent of indigent criminal defendants forego their constitutional right to a jury trial and plead guilty. This is not how our legal system was meant to function. Failing to provide indigent criminal defendants with meaningful and competent representation is one of the many ways that our criminal justice system is broken.
The Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016 is supported by the Innocence Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the NAACP.