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Right to counsel is violated every day.
Every day in thousands of courtrooms across the nation, from trial courts that handle felony cases to limited jurisdiction justice of the peace courts, the right to counsel is violated. Leadership to make change must be driven by state leaders. Leadership to make change must be driven by state Supreme Court justices and judges at every other level. Bar leaders and ordinary citizens must speak out for fairness.
Judges conduct hearings in which people accused of crimes and children accused of delinquency appear without lawyers. Some are middle class and therefore not eligible for appointed lawyers. Many plead guilty without lawyers. Others plead guilty and are sentenced after learning about plea offers from lawyers they met moments before. They are afraid and intimidated by the courts. Innocent people plead guilty to get out of jail. Too many plead guilty with no idea that there are collateral consequences that could change their lives.
Can today’s reality be changed? There is no substitute for adequate and stable financing of the right to counsel. The system of justice and its leaders must take a stronger stance against inadequate representation.Convicting innocent people is unacceptable in a civilized society, and the odds of that happening increase dramatically if the standard of acceptable practice in giving lawyers to the poor remains what it is today.
Kevin S. Burke is a District Judge in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The Hennepin County District Court has 62 judges and more than 750,000 cases filed per year. Judge Burke was elected for four terms as Chief Judge and three terms as Assistant Chief Judge. He teaches trial practice at the University of Minnesota Law School and criminal procedure at the University of St. Thomas Law School.
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