Transforming the System


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Encouraging early provision of defense counsel

Defendants are legally presumed to be innocent prior to trial, yet it is rare for indigent defendants to receive prompt counsel. Effective counsel is crucial to ensuring that there are fair outcomes, especially for misdemeanor cases, which are often indigent defendants’ first point of entry into the criminal justice system. Early access to counsel may be critical in avoiding pre-trial detention, refining the defense, and preventing downstream rights violations in the enforcement of sentences that include fines and fees. Despite this, indigent counsel is often not provided at the early stages of imprisonment.

To ensure that there is early provision of indigent defense counsel, the local bar, judiciary, local law schools, and the federal government and local government should:

  • Create a rapid response indigent defense system that accommodates the need for counsel, especially for misdemeanor cases. Such response system may include the following: partnerships between law school clinics and local bar associations; legislation providing funds to support such programs; and judiciary-led initiatives to ensure that indigent defendants are represented soon after initial arrest.

The Administration should remain active in the development of Goal 16 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal, which focuses on access to justice.

The Office for Access to Justice of the Department of Justice and the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable should identify key partnerships that could bridge gaps in indigent representation.

Civil society should be active in creating partnerships that bridge gaps in the provision of indigent defense.

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