Last July, the homeless Hubert Lindsey was stopped by police officers in Gulfport, Ms., for riding his bicycle without a light. Records showed he owed $4,780 in old fines, so he went off to jail, says U.S. News & World Report. Legal activists suing the city in federal court say it was obvious that he couldn’t pay the fines. Without a lawyer to plead his case, the question never came up. Nor did the question of whether the fines were really owed, or if it was constitutional to jail him for debts he couldn’t pay. The judge ordered Lindsey to “sit out” the fine in jail for nearly two months.
The American Bar Association says that thousands of indigent people still navigate the court system each year without a lawyer, or with one who doesn’t have the time, resources, or interest to provide effective representation. Whether they face serious felony charges or misdemeanors, the poor often find themselves alone in a sometimes-Kafkaesque system where they have little voice. Without advocates, some poor defendants serve jail time longer than the law requires or plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to get out of jail. A few receive the death penalty or life in prison because their court-appointed lawyers were incompetent, lazy, or both. Most shocking, says Norman Lefstein, who chaired the American Bar Association’s Indigent Defense Advisory Group, “is the lack of overall real success, the lack of progress” given the overwhelming evidence that inadequate counsel often leads to wrongful conviction. The many cases we know about “likely are only the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “This is an enormous problem.”