It has been 50 years since Clarence Gideon, a drifter from Hannibal, Mo., with a history of drinking, gambling and thieving, mailed a letter from a Florida jail cell to the U.S. Supreme Court that eventually led to a fundamental right for every American: “If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you.” But the Kansas City Star reports that, in Gideon's home state and elsewhere around the country, the criminal justice system continues to struggle to live up to the promise demanded by the Supreme Court in 1963.
“The truth is we clearly haven't,” said Abe Krash, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who helped represent Gideon in his Supreme Court case. “In public defender offices, there are many extremely conscientious attorneys, but they are tremendously underfunded and overburdened.” A 2011 report found that most of the country's public defender offices are overwhelmed with cases. The problem has plagued the Missouri State Public Defender System for years, officials say. With 376 lawyers, the system opened more than 84,000 cases in fiscal year 2012. “Any way you slice it, we're overloaded,” said Cat Kelly, director of Missouri's defender system.