When he was charged with murder in 1996, James Thomas, an impoverished day laborer in Baton Rouge, La., became like many other criminal defendants: With no money to hire a lawyer, he had to rely on the government to provide him with one. He then spent the next 8½ years in jail, waiting for his case to go to trial. It never did, reports USA Today. Last spring, a Louisiana state appeals court ruled that prosecutors had waited too long to try him, and it threw the charge out.
More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every person charged with a crime is entitled to legal representation – provided by the government, if necessary–the promise is an empty one for many low-income defendants. Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association in Washington, D.C., found in a survey of indigent legal services. Programs across the nation are short on lawyers, investigators and other staff, and they frequently fail to investigate charges against clients, hire necessary experts and make appropriate motions in court.