by Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel
The United States Constitution is clear. In criminal cases, the accused have a right to a lawyer. Our Constitution affords this protection in order to ensure that individuals are not wrongfully or unfairly deprived of their liberty.
Yet there is question as to whether this fundamental 6th Amendment right is being upheld in Alabama.
Throughout the South, states and districts are being sued for their failure to comply with the Constitution.
In Louisiana, indigent defendants have asserted that their constitutional right to counsel is being denied, which has led to a legal battle over the state’s failure to provide adequate funding and resources for the state public defender service.
Similarly, indigent defendants in South Carolina recently filed a class action lawsuit against certain jurisdictions for failure to provide legal representation.
Horrifically, one plaintiff in the South Carolina case, a homeless man, has been arrested or given a citation 270 times for the same offense, yet not once has he had an attorney represent him in court proceedings.
These cases demonstrate why we need to know if, how, and to what extent Alabama is ensuring access to counsel for indigent defendants.
Appleseed previously conducted a study of the indigent defense services in four Alabama judicial circuits from 2001-2002. This report has been widely cited for the insight it provided on the practices of indigent defense counsel and the outcomes of those cases.
But, there have been no such studies conducted since then, and there is no comprehensive report on indigent representation throughout Alabama.
In order to understand how and whether the right to counsel is being protected today, Appleseed will soon begin documenting and assessing the quality of indigent defense services in a wide range of counties.
Appleseed’s staff has been traveling to all corners of the state to engage with those in the community who are charged with the duty of ensuring that indigent defendants receive legal representation. We have been meeting with these stakeholders, including public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, judges, and other key Alabamians to hear their views on how the system is currently functioning and what aspects of indigent defense they believe we most need to research.
Alabamians care deeply about protecting the Constitution. This is why Appleseed will conduct this study, and then use the findings to collaborate with partners to ensure that all indigent defendants in the state have access to adequately resourced, quality legal representation.