NLADA president Jo-Ann Wallace

President of the 100-year-old NLADA, Wallace assesses the negative impact of sequestration on the legal system in the U.S.

Jo-Ann Wallace has dedicated her professional life to closing the justice gap in America. She's a founder of the American Council of Chief Defenders, a leadership council of the top defender executives from across the U.S., and helped establish the National Defender Leadership Institute and the Equal Justice Leadership Initiative for legal aid advocates. She also worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia for 14 years and is currently president and chief executive officer of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), the oldest and largest national membership organization devoting all of its resources to equal justice.


Tavis: This year is the 50th anniversary of Gideon versus Wainright where the Supreme Court ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to defendants who are unable to pay their own attorneys. Now sequestration budget cuts threaten to undermine the ability of organizations to provide those legal services to those who need the help, including the legal services corporation which relies on money from Congress to support 130 legal aid offices across the nation.

Even before sequestration, the legal defender system in this country was under funded with cases being turned down by attorneys who were already overloaded. Jo-Ann Wallace, president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association which, by the way, began more than 100 years ago, has seen the negative fallout from these cutbacks firsthand and joins us now to talk about the impact sequestration is having on our legal system. Jo-Ann, good to have you here.

Jo-Ann Wallace: Nice to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: I want to start by going back 50 years ago. This is a major moment in America where states, as I mentioned a moment ago, state courts are required to make sure that the indigent, the poor, have the resources they need to be represented in court. Take me back 50 years ago and help me understand what the conditions were, what was happening in the nation then, that forced this into play.

Wallace: So 50 years ago was when the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Gideon versus Wainwright. And Mr. Gideon was an individual who was brought to court without a lawyer. When he asked for a lawyer and said he couldn’t pay for one, the court didn’t give him one.

Well, from his jail cell, he wrote a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately the court said that, in this country, if a person is brought into court and has to face the state, the resources of the state, they have a right to an attorney under the Constitution. And if they can’t afford one, then one has to be provided to them.

So that was a landmark case and virtually every case since then where that issue has come up, where there has been an accused person who is facing losing their liberty, the Supreme Court has stood firm and said yes, you have the right to counsel. That was extended in misdemeanor cases, appellate cases and other cases that have come before the court.

Tavis: There’s a documentary out. I haven’t actually seen it yet. But I’ve been getting a lot of emails about the fact that I need to see it and I feel bad that I haven’t as yet. But I’m about to go on vacation in a couple of weeks and I’ll get a chance. It’s on the top of my list with some other things to read that I want to get into. You know this documentary that I’m talking about?

Wallace: “Gideon’s Army.”

Tavis: Yeah, “Gideon’s Army.” Tell me about it.

Wallace: Absolutely. Please do see it. It was a documentary that really does show what the public defender system is like in this country, how important it is, what a tough job it is, but important job that it is, and why it is that we need to have adequately funded public defense systems. I wholly, wholly recommend it to you. You should see it. It’s a fabulous job by the Ford Foundation.

In fact, NLADA has a partnership with Trilogy Films and others to help get the word out about what is happening in this country, which is basically 50 years after Gideon, there are people all across this country who get convicted without ever talking to a lawyer still. Or if they do have a lawyer appointed to them, then it’s often one that doesn’t have the resources that they need to do the job.

Tavis: I keep hearing about it because there’s apparently a lot of buzz on this thing already. I mean, this documentary category is very competitive, as you know, in this town when it comes to Oscar season. But a lot of buzz on this documentary called “Gideon’s Army” which I’m gonna see. You might want to check it out yourself.

To your point now, 50 years after Gideon versus Wainwright, what is the condition of our legal system where the poor and the indigent are concerned?

Wallace: Well, there’s been a crisis in this country since Gideon. Really, the public defender system has never been fully funded. There are, as I said, every day in this country, people still get convicted without ever talking to a lawyer. Often they don’t have a lawyer who has the resources to do the job.

And the federal system right now, this is new. You know, up until now, the federal system, the federal public defender system, has widely been regarded as a model unlike the states where there are problems in states and localities across the country.

But the federal system has been one that has been looked to as setting a bar for indigent defense, but right now because of budget cuts and sequestration on top of that, that system is being decimated. Right now they’re facing in this year 10% budget cuts which is forcing them to lay off staff, forcing them to have staff take days off without pay and to close offices.

What that means is that, when people are brought into the federal system and accused of a crime, there will be delays in them getting a lawyer or they may get a lawyer who doesn’t have the resources to adequately represent them because their resources that they need like access to experts are being cut.

So this is a terrible, terrible turn of events that is happening this year as we mark the anniversary of Gideon and we have to do something about it.

Tavis: What’s been fascinating for me over the last few months is to look at the debate that got a little bit of liftoff, not as much as I’d like to see personally, but the debate over the last few months since President Obama’s been reelected about Guantanamo and what happens to Guantanamo. Are we gonna close Guantanamo? And the debate, as you know, has been about the rights or the lack thereof for these persons who are being held at Guantanamo.

What’s been fascinating for me to watch is how that debate has gotten a little bit of liftoff about what happens to persons at Guantanamo, but this conversation about American citizens who are being denied counsel, being delayed when it comes to cases being heard, has gotten barely liftoff even though this is 50 years later since this historic case.

Wallace: Yeah. People need to understand what is happening, what is happening in states across the country, in every state across the country. It’s not just the south, as people sometimes think, but there really is a crisis in the indigent defense system.

In the federal system right now, what is happening because of cuts fueled by sequestration, federal defenders are looking at cutting about 10% of their budgets this year for 2013. For 2014, they’ve been told to expect another 14 to 23% on top of that. So that means that they will have to lay off additional staff, close offices, often closing offices in places where there aren’t other attorneys to pick up the cases.

And the issue here is, because of the Sixth Amendment right, because of the constitutional right to counsel, public defenders can’t control their workload. There has to be an attorney representing that individual, so sequestration doesn’t make sense in terms of the cuts that it’s ultimately supposed to have because you still have to pay for counsel.

Tavis: So let me understand then. If the Supreme Court said 50 years ago that you are obligated to have counsel and these cuts kick in, the workload obviously of those who are left increases. But what happens to the individuals who again have a constitutional right now to receive counsel?

Wallace: Well, what happens is that individuals will sit in jail longer, individuals, all of whom are presumed innocent and many of whom ultimately will be found to be innocent, will sit in jails longer, will not have their day in court as they should. I mean, justice in our country should be swift, it should be accurate, it should be fair and our system should be accountable.

Tavis: How do you sit in jail longer when there’s a growing debate across the country, especially in this state? You know, we just had a federal decree essentially that we had to release some people from prisons because of prison overcrowding here in the state of California. This is not the only state where prison overcrowding is a very real issue.

So when you say that people sit in jail longer, I’m trying to juxtapose sitting in jail longer with prisons already being overcrowded. To say nothing of your rights being delayed, if not denied, where do you sit longer?

Wallace: Right. Well, there are some instances where judges have said that they would let people out of prison or jail if they can’t have counsel appointed in a timely fashion. But ultimately what happens in many instances, individuals wait in jail until they can have their day in court. And with these cuts, that day can be much delayed.

And there are costs. There are costs to the individual, of course. There are costs to the families, to our administration of justice and, when there are delays, to the accuracy of verdicts.

Tavis: And cost to the state.

Wallace: Absolutely.

Tavis: Because the longer they sit there before they get their day in court, the more you’re paying to house them, to feed them, all that stuff.

Wallace: Absolutely. That is one of the benefits of qualified counsel is that it really can reduce jail and prison costs by doing their job. So it’s critically important that, in this year as we mark the 50th anniversary of Gideon, that we have adequate funding for the federal public defender system and that we take a look at what is happening in indigent defense systems across the country.

Tavis: Obviously, we care about this around here and, if we didn’t care about it, we wouldn’t have booked you on the program. I say that only because I’m wondering what your sense is of how much the American people, even when they hear about this, how much they actually care about this. And I ask that question, again, at this backdrop.

I was stunned when these polls and surveys and studies started to come out after we learned more about NSA and how all the phone records are being tapped, to say nothing of the Associated Press and Fox News. So the American people start being asked by pollsters what do you make of the federal government tapping into potentially your phone records, etc., etc.? And the country basically snoozed at that.

You know, the polls indicate that most Americans or the majority of Americans said, “Well, I ain’t got nothing to hide. If I ain’t got nothing to hide, why do I care about them snooping?” And if they didn’t say that, they said, “Well, if it’s gonna make our country safer, then I’m willing to give up some liberties and give up some freedoms.”

But, by and large, beyond the ACLU, there was not this large hue and cry about peoples’ rights being trampled on in the name of “national security” even if it means the government snooping into your records. So if the American people or fellow citizens don’t care about that, where their own individual lives are concerned, why do we care about indigent people sitting in jails and prisons?

Wallace: Well, you know, Tavis, the fact of the matter is, when people, when they find out about this, first of all, their jaws drop as when you and I spoke. You know, people are surprised that there are people who go unrepresented because they assume that the Supreme Court case really is in effect and that governments follow it. That’s what they see on TV. When they learn that that is not the case, they are shocked and appalled and saddened.

The fact of the matter is that polls show that people do care about this issue when they learn about it, that people do believe that there has to be adequately funded public defense systems. They understand that in America’s system of justice, there is no justice unless you have an attorney. It is too complex. The current justice system is far too complex to try to navigate without that. They understand that there is no real justice unless you have a qualified counsel at your side.

So when they hear about it and understand what’s going on and learn what they can do about it which, in this case, is tell Congress, they need to act to exempt the Sixth Amendment from sequestration and adequately fund the federal criminal justice system, the federal indigent defense system, as well as help the states to meet their mandate, their federal constitutional mandate. People care, people will do it.

Tavis: This is one of those instances where it’d be nice if life imitated art, to your earlier point. You can get a lawyer faster on “L.A. Law” or “Law and Order.” Pick a TV show. A faster lawyer you can find on a TV show than you can in a real court in this country if you happen to be poor or indigent. But on that, I digress.

This is 50 years now, 2013, since Gideon versus Wainwright, a historic case in this country. There’s a documentary out, as we mentioned earlier, called “Gideon’s Army” you might want to check out. A lot of buzz on this documentary that I’ll be checking out and you should as well. For now, though, we thank you, Jo-Ann, for coming on the program.

Wallace: Thank you, Tavis, for having me.

Tavis: And thanks for your work.

Wallace: Thanks.

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Last modified: July 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm