In 1961, a poor laborer named Clarence Gideon was arrested and charged with stealing $5 in change and beer and soda from a Panama City, Florida, pool hall. He couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer, and asked the state to provide him with one. Florida denied his request, arguing the state was required to provide counsel only in capital cases. Gideon – who quit school after the eighth grade – was forced to defend himself in court. Based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, Gideon was convicted of breaking and entering and sentenced to five years in prison.

Two years later, in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of access to counsel applies in all criminal cases, not just capital ones. Clarence Gideon was granted another trial, this one with an attorney who easily discredited the eyewitness testimony. The jury acquitted Gideon after just one hour of deliberation, and he was released from prison.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court acknowledged what it called an “obvious truth”: Most people don’t know enough about the law to adequately defend themselves in court against professional prosecutors. A defense attorney is a necessity, not a luxury. And if someone can’t afford to hire a lawyer, the state must provide one.

Since the establishment of this right, it has been left up to each state to determine how it will provide counsel in such cases, and indigent defense systems vary to some degree. Maine’s own court-appointed lawyer system is an outlier; while most states rely on a mix of private attorneys and public defenders who are employed by the state, we are the only state that hires only private attorneys to represent poor defendants.

In 2009 the Legislature established the independent Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services and tasked it with providing “efficient, high-quality representation to indigent criminal defendants, juvenile defendants, and children and parents in child protective cases.” The commission oversees legal services provided by approximately 600 private attorneys, handling cases in 47 courthouses – all with a staff of only three people.

The result of this setup is predictable. Earlier this year, the Sixth Amendment Center – a nationwide, nonpartisan organization dedicated to studying effective counsel – found Maine’s indigent legal services badly in need of reform.

In a 116-page report – which will be the focus of a State House public hearing Tuesday at 9 a.m. – the Sixth Amendment Center found that Maine’s system suffers from a lack of oversight and funding; that it often relies on unqualified attorneys lacking the proper training; that some appointed lawyers don’t spend enough time on individual cases and don’t always show up for court appearances, and that defendants often meet with a string of “lawyers of the day,” rather than having the same lawyer throughout their case.

This absence of a strong, well-resourced indigent defense system leads to deeply unfair results. Poor people get worse outcomes, while the wealthy – with access to private attorneys with the proper amount of time and resources at their disposal – fare much better. People with inadequate counsel are more likely to sit in jail awaiting their trial, more likely to take unfair plea deals, more likely to be found guilty and more likely to serve unnecessarily long sentences.

Along with its findings, the Sixth Amendment Center made several recommendations to reform Maine’s system. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services should consider them carefully. Most importantly, the commission must ensure court-appointed attorneys are qualified, properly trained and supervised. That may seem obvious, but under the current system it’s simply not the case. And, to ensure we are living up to our obligations, the state must better fund our indigent defense system.

Reforming Maine’s system and ensuring every person has access to justice will require a broad range of solutions. But one thing is clear: We have an opportunity to improve access to justice for all Mainers, and we should take it. When counsel is provided in name only, innocent people go to jail, families are torn apart, overly punitive sentences are served and justice is denied.

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