As life without parole displaces capital punishment, the country’s patchwork system of public defense hasn’t kept up, reports The Dallas Morning News. Only 11 states report having minimum qualifications for lawyers who represent impoverished people facing a lifetime behind bars, according to the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center. In Texas, there’s a continuing dispute over whether the standards for death penalty defense apply if prosecutors seek life without parole instead. Most states have no rules, and someone just out of law school could handle a life-without-parole case in Illinois or Nebraska. In California, where a third of the prison population is serving some form of life sentence, minimum qualifications apply only in death penalty cases; the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. Other states have minimal standards. South Carolina requires just three years of experience in criminal law; Arkansas specifies that lawyers should have handled at least one homicide trial.
In Michigan, where 4,000 people are serving life without parole, the indigent defense commission adopted new standards that would require lawyers who handle such cases to have at least five years of significant experience, including at least seven felony jury trials. But the standards have yet to be approved by other state regulators. Many legal experts say that people facing life without parole should receive the same level of representation as those facing the death penalty. Meanwhile, prosecutors have found that jurors are less squeamish about locking people up for the rest of their lives than about executing them. And life-without-parole trials cost thousands of dollars less than death penalty cases. They are shorter, involve fewer lawyers, allow limited appeals and often end in plea deals before trial. Across the country, the result has been the involvement of lawyers who are overburdened, underpaid and occasionally incompetent. Almost 56,000 people nationwide are now serving sentences that will keep them locked up until they die, an increase of 66 percent since 2003, according to The Sentencing Project.