YOU HAVE THE right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.
So goes the the Miranda rights spiel heard on 1,000 cop shows. But in many parts of the U.S., it's not quite true. Those who cannot afford a lawyer are left waiting for months to meet with public defenders already buried under other cases.
After Shondel Church was arrested for felony theft in 2016, the Missouri public defender service told him his case was winnable, but he would have to sit in jail six months before an attorney could prepare it. After waiting three months without a job and away from his family, Church took a plea deal. He's now the lead plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group is arguing that Missouri's woefully inadequate roster of public defenders violates poor residents' constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court ruled in the landmark 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to effective legal counsel. "Reason and reflection," the justices wrote, "require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him."
But states have undercut the Gideon guarantee by chronically underfunding public defender services. The 370 attorneys doing the work in Colorado have a load of more than 80,000 cases a year. A 2014 study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that in 97 percent of cases, Missouri public...