Thousands of suspects unable to afford lawyers are wrongly convicted each year because they have incompetent attorneys or are pressured to accept guilty pleas, says an American Bar Association committee quoted by the Associated Press. The panel contends that legal representation of indigents is in “a state of crisis.” Defendants are at risk of wrongful conviction and unjust punishment, including the death penalty, says the group’s report out today.
The ABA committee wants governments at all levels to spend more money and create oversight groups to guard against poor legal representation. Judges were asked to be more vigilant in ensuring defendants have competent counsel. It has been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled the government must provide legal counsel to indigent defendants who are charged with serious crimes. “The challenge is coming up with politically viable ways to fix the problem,” said law Prof. Douglas Berman of Ohio State University. “The long-term costs of underfunding defense counsel are hard to see when a state is facing budget crises. The ABA group said there is no formal training for lawyers for the indigent in Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, which puts more people to death than any other state.