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"Assembly Line Justice"
The Failed Constitutional Promise of Justice For The Poor
A Focus on the Indigent Defense System

""In Any True Democracy, Real Justice Is About Finding Solutions Before There Are Problems "
Lakeith Amir Sharif

GIDEON‘S BROKEN PROMISE: AMERICA‘S CONTINUING QUEST FOR EQUAL JUSTICE The increasing number of exonerations occurring in recent years in death-row and other cases has brought to light the shocking truth that innocent people are being wrongfully convicted in our criminal justice system; particularly in Dallas County, Texas -"15" DNA exonerations since 2001 and over 400 other request for DNA testing pending.

The primary safeguard against this injustice is appointment of competent and effective legal representation, which is also one of our constitutional rights, as established in 1963 by the US Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 rendered one of its most important criminal justice decisions, holding that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution guarantee the provision of counsel to indigent persons accused of crime in state felony proceedings. The rationale for this decision is contained in the following oft-cited passage:

[R]eason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.

This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society.

Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.

From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a competent and effective lawyer to assist him or her.

Our study has led to the inescapable conclusion that, forty years after the Gideon decision, the promise of equal justice for the poor remains a unfulfilled constitutional right in this country.


Texas Primary Indigent Defense Delivery System: Assigned Counsel/Contract

The Spangenberg Report : Back issues of The Spangenberg Report are available as individual PDF files. Adobe Acrobat Reader is required to view the reports.

Back Issues of the Spangenberg Report

THE SPANGENBERG GROUP 1001 Watertown Street West Newton, MA 02465 Tel: 617.969.3820 Fax: 617.965.3966 *


In 2001 the Texas Fair Defense Act was signed into law. The Fair Defense Act created the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, which was created in part to ensure uniform indigent defense guidelines throughout Texas.

Previous to this legislation there was no systemic way to track the assigned counsel compensation plan for Texas’ 254 counties, as judges set compensation rates for their own courtrooms (and there are more than 800 criminal courts in Texas).

Each county is still given the responsibility of designing and funding its own indigent defense system. However, counties must now develop and publish plans for their indigent defense systems that meet certain standards laid out in the statute. One such requirement is that all criminal courts in a county adhere to a single county-wide compensation plan.

The compensation plans and therefore compensation rates in Texas vary widely. The hourly rate for court-appointed attorneys for both in- and out-of-court work ranges from $30 to $175. The hourly rate often depends on the type of felony, the particular event, and the experience of the attorney.

Many counties use a combination system of hourly and fixed rates. Harris County (Houston), for example, uses this type of combination system. For out-of-court work, the county pays on an hourly basis depending on the degree of the felony.

Court-appointed attorneys earn $100 per hour working on a first degree felony case, with a cap of $2,000. A second degree felony case pays an hourly rate of $75 with a maximum of $750, and a third degree felony pays an out-of-court rate of $50 with a $500 maximum.

In-court fixed daily rates also depend on the degree of the felony, as well as whether the case is at trial or not.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry Signs Landmark Texas Fair Defense Act.

New Law Overhauls Texas' Indigent Criminal Defense System: Texas' criminal justice system has been the focus of national and international criticism, particularly the lack of standards and state oversight of attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants.

The Texas Fair Defense Act addresses this criticism by focusing on four critical issues -- timely appointment of counsel, method of counsel appointment by the courts, reporting of information about indigent representation services, and minimum standards for counsel. The legislation also creates a task force within the Judicial Council to recommend further improvements and direct funding to assist counties in the improvements.

2001 Fair Defense Act


Note: The following link is to a court order which is one of the actions taken by Dallas County’s to bring itself into compliance with the mandates and objectives of the 2001 Texas Fair Defense Act


Texas Fair Defense Project.

Texas Fair Defense Act and its implementation. This web site provides a great source of information and links covering the Texas Fair Defense Act and Indigent Defense Reforms in Texas

From the (Texas) Fair Defense Campaign website:

Note: This is an organization where you can file complaint about problems with an attorney. Don’t get this confused with the Texas Bar which is where formal complaint about problems with a attorney can be filed.

Thank you for visiting. If you are facing criminal charges and you don't know how to get a lawyer or what to do to protect your rights, the resources on this website can help you. The brochure "What to do if you can't afford a lawyer in Texas" explains how to ask for a court-appointed lawyer. If you are still having problems getting a court-appointed lawyer after reading the brochure, or if you are having other problems related to court-appointed lawyers, please submit a complaint online. By filling out any part of the complaint form, you are helping the Fair Defense Campaign collect essential data about the problems defendants in criminal cases encounter when they cannot afford to hire a lawyer.


FRONTLINE REPORT: In many courts in this country we have a system of assembly-line justice, where people meet their court appointed lawyer often in court, sometimes even in the front of the courtroom, talk to them for five minutes, plead guilty, are sentenced, and that's their entire exposure to the criminal justice system. What kind of justice is that?

Well, it's not real justice and of course it also means that the prosecutor has all the power, not only for determining what charge the person pleads guilty to, but also the sentence, because in most places the plea bargain includes, "You plead guilty, you get this particular sentence." So the defense lawyer doesn't really do anything except communicate that to the client, and the judge doesn't do anything except accept the recommendation by the prosecutor."

America’s Indigent Defense System- Assembly Line Justice

American Bar Assoc. Indigent Defense Reports & Studies:

Inadequate funding of defense services for the indigent accused has resulted in many courts pressuring misdemeanants into waiving their right to counsel. In most states, lawyers defending the poor must prepare their client cases without sufficient support from investigators, forensic laboratories or expert witnesses. Typically, in public defender systems, public defenders receive salaries that are lower than prosecutor's salaries. And in many parts of the country, appointed lawyers are paid so little that their compensation fails to cover even their office overhead, and their fee bills are cut arbitrarily by judges and court administrators or not paid at all. Inevitably, these situations have resulted in injustices for many defendants simply because of their poverty.

This bleak picture, twenty years after the Gideon decision, is a severe blot upon the fabric of the nation's constitutional and historic commitment to a free society with justice and liberty for all. In the words of that great jurist, Learned Hand, it manifests a violation of the fundamental commandment Thou Shalt Not Ration Justice. We who are fortunate enough to live in the United States often scorn the elaborate constitutional safeguards for the individual against the state which are sometimes found in the written laws of banana republics and eastern bloc countries. Our scorn is directed at the fact that these safeguards are nothing but paper promises which become totally illusory in practice. However, we must recognize that in defaulting on the constitutional mandate to furnish legal services to all indigent accused in criminal cases in this country, we are on a dangerous, slippery slope headed towards the same sorry state that exists in many of the countries we ridicule for having excellent law on the books but nowhere else. We must be willing to put our money where our mouth is; we must be willing to make the constitutional mandate a reality.

American Bar Assoc. Indigent Defense Reports & Studies, Including Lawyers' Pay Rates

2007(TEXAS)FAIR DEFENSE LAW Prepared by the Task Force on Indigent Defense

There is a growing concern nationwide about the quality of legal representation afforded indigent defendants. Citizens are uneasy when they hear about a lawyer falling asleep at counsel’s table during a capital case, lawyers who do not fully investigate a case or talk to witnesses, or lawyers who make no attempt to consult with an expert to sort out complex mental health issues. Concepts of fairness and justice are deeply rooted and fundamental to our democracy. People are troubled when presented with evidence that poor people don’t get their fair and full day in court; they are shocked by the increasing reports of innocent people being incarcerated or sentenced to death. Equal access to justice is an important American value. Ensuring due process to all citizens, regardless of financial status, race, or age, requires constant assessment of our criminal and juvenile justice systems.


T H E   S P A N G E N B E R G   G R O U P
Rates of Compensation for Court Appointed Counsel in Non-Capital Felonies at Trial, 2007 Hourly Rate State Out of Court In Court Per Case Maximum Is Maximum Waivable? Flat Fee Authority
South Carolina $40 $60 $3,500 Yes Code of Law of S.C. Ann. § 17-3-50. South Dakota $78 None S.D.C.L. § 23A-40-8.10 Tennessee $40 $50 Preliminary hearings in general sessions or municipal court: $1,000; Trial court: $1,500 Up to $3,00011 Supreme Court Rule 13 § 2 Texas Varies Bexar County (San Antonio): Ranges from $50-$75 out of court and $75-$125 in court. Dallas County: Ranges from $75-$100 El Paso County: $50 $65 Varies Varies Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 26.05 grants authority to local judge. Utah Varies Varies Utah Code Ann. § 77-32-304.5 grants authority to county legislative body or district court. Vermont12 $50 Felony involving life in prison; $25,000 Major felony: $5,000 Minor felony: $2,000 Yes 13 V.S.A. § 5205(a) grants authority to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Get Inside the Criminal Justice System With Presumed Guilty. The Public Defender System in this documentary is similar in many ways to those systems used in Dallas County and throughout the country. Public defenders are rarely portrayed in the mass media, and when they are, they're often shown sleeping through trials or plea-bargaining away the rights of their clients. While unfavorable, this image of public defenders is the norm rather then the exception and this reality has become the basis for a coast to coast call for improvements in the delivery of legal assistance to the poor.

Filmmakers Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy have set out to tell the stories of a "rare breed" of real-life public defenders who clash daily with police, district attorneys, judges and even their clients, in their efforts to advocate justice for the accused.

Tales of the Public Defenders chronicles a year of trench warfare in jails, holding cells, courtrooms, law offices and police stations, revealing the criminal justice system as never seen before. A part of KQED Public Television's acclaimed national Emmy Award-winning Bay Window series, Presumed Guilty is a powerful look at the triumphs, defeats and moral dilemmas of a group of lawyers in the San Francisco public defender's office. An individual accused of a crime has a constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer. Studies show, however, that 90 percent of all people accused of crimes in San Francisco cannot afford private lawyers and are assigned public defenders.The Office of the Public Defender handles over 19,000 cases per year. While following two high-profile murder cases, Presumed Guilty explores what really goes on between defense attorneys and the accused in the inner sanctum of lawyer-client confidentiality. Filmed and produced over three years by Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy of Skylight Pictures, this film breaks new ground in its access to the privileged discussions between lawyers and clients as they grapple with facts, stories and strategies before, during and after their trials.

In the program and on the Web site, the cases unfold through the eyes of the featured public defenders themselves. What they see, the audience sees. What they hear, the audience hears. On this Web site, visitors can follow timelines to find detailed and intimate information about these real-life cases see video clips of public defenders speaking in their own words; learn to better understand their own rights; and find Web sites and resources that explain more about crime, punishment, representation and the criminal justice system. They can also delve behind the scenes into the making of the film.

The program is also being screened across the United States. After one such screening, Christopher Stone, a legal scholar and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, commented. The vitality of the adversary system, with its robust defense of indigent defendants, is powerfully displayed in this film. It is an imperfect system, but one with strength and moral .quot;purpose. Yet the future of the adversary system in general, and the robust defense of the indigent in particular, are under threat today across the United States.

Despite Texas legislators passing the Fair Defense Act in 2001, this unconstitutional threat to our system of justice and fairness is evident in every county within the State of Texas.

PBS- Presumed Guilty Documentary:
Tales of the Public Defender System





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