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In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright assured criminal defendants right to an attorney

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This week marks the 60th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court ruling. In Gideon v. Wainwright, the high court said everyone, regardless of income, has a fundamental right to a lawyer. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Criminal defense attorneys put the government's case to the test, and so doing, they make sure that every part of our system is fairer, more equal and more just.

PFEIFFER: But does everyone truly get a robust legal defense? - because public defenders face tight budgets and high demand. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been reporting on this for years. She's on the line now.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Carrie, what do public defenders tell you about their overall situation now?

JOHNSON: What I'm hearing is really heavy pressure and not a lot of respect. Stan German is executive director of New York County Defender Services. He talked about some of those challenges at an event last night in Washington.

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STAN GERMAN: Understaffed, crushing caseloads, underpaid and undervalued. And this is a conscious decision that our legislatures make throughout this country.

JOHNSON: Other public defenders told me providing a robust public defense isn't just a nice thing to do or a good thing to do. This is a constitutional requirement.

PFEIFFER: A requirement but also an expensive one. So how do state and local governments try to meet that requirement when it's also very costly? And how do they make sure people with lower incomes have lawyers to represent them in criminal courts?

JOHNSON: There's a nonprofit group called the Sixth Amendment Center. They surveyed state and local governments to see how much they're spending. And the center says funding for public defenders is still a drop in the bucket compared to what states pay for police and jails. But they said things have gotten somewhat better in the last decade. More states like Michigan are investing more money and doing more to monitor public defense lawyers and to create standards for them. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed about a dozen lawsuits to try to get states to live up to their obligations, and some of those cases are still going on. Yasmin Cader is deputy legal director at the ACLU.

YASMIN CADER: Because of these failures, the economically marginalized and low-income people, many of whom are Black and other people of color, don't get the legal representation that lives up to what the Constitution mandates.

PFEIFFER: Carrie, what's being done to fix that?

JOHNSON: This week, two Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, introduced a bill that would create a $250 million program to help states hire public defenders and investigators. And there's stuff going on within the Biden administration, too. The Justice Department reestablished its office called Access to Justice and made a former public defender the leader there.

All this month, senior Justice officials have been traveling all over the country to meet with public defenders and listen to them. They're trying to deliver a message that states can use federal grant money to help fund public defense and public defenders and also to try to achieve pay parity - this issue that public defenders often make a lot less than prosecutors. Attorney General Merrick Garland this week basically put out a call to arms. He said young law students should consider public defense work, a job that he called both necessary and noble in many respects.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.