Adequate Defender Services Funding Needed to Counter Prosecutorial Excesses
Washington, DC (April 1, 1998) -- Years of "woefully inadequate" funding for federal criminal defense services has resulted in "widespread and rampant abuse of citizens rights by federal prosecutors," the President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) told a House Appropriations subcommittee today.
"Without any effective counterbalance, the enormous power concentrated in the hands of federal prosecutors invites abuse of that power," NACDL President Gerald B. Lefcourt explained to the panel. "Without adequate defense funding, this dangerous encroachment on the precious rights of all Americans will persist. It renders a mockery of any Sixth Amendment right to counsel or Fifth Amendment right to due process. It compromises our justice system in America."
The lack of an adequately-funded defense function, which is supposed to act as the primary bulwark against unchecked prosecutorial excesses, has resulted in what Representative Joseph M. McDade (R-PA) recently cited as "unethical, abusive and improper conduct by U.S. Department of Justice employees," Lefcourt observed. Mr. McDade is the sponsor of bipartisan legislation which would rein in much of that unbridled power.
"In 1997, numbers of both federal criminal cases and federal defendants rose to their highest levels since the end of Prohibition in 1933," Lefcourt noted. "Eighty-five percent of those defendants can't afford a lawyer and have one appointed by the court, nearly half of which are from the private defense bar. Yet because Congress has consistently and arbitrarily denied the cost-of-living increases for federal court-appointed lawyers authorized by the Criminal Justice Act of 1986, federal court-appointed work now does not even cover a lawyer's overhead. With more and more money going to the Justice Department prosecutorial arm every year and less and less to the defense function, Congress is turning our time-honored adversarial system into a sham."
"Last month, the country celebrated the 35th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, by which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously established a citizen's constitutional right to be represented by counsel in every criminal case, even if he cannot afford one," Lefcourt noted. "But Gideon's promise rings hollow if his lawyer actually loses money every hour he spends on a federal court-appointed case and is denied the funds needed to mount an adequate defense. Lack of defense funding is the surest way to guarantee that innocent citizens are imprisoned along with guilty ones. What a sad commentary on our nation's 'war against crime'."
Immediately prior to the hearing, Lefcourt presented Representative McDade with NACDL's prestigious Champion of Justice Award, in recognition of his efforts to level the playing field as between prosecutors and citizen defenders by introducing (with John Murtha, D-PA) H.R. 3396, the "Citizens Protection Act of 1998." Among other things, the legislation would require federal prosecutors to comply with the same state and federal laws and ethical rules that apply to all other attorneys.
[Click Here] for the text of Gerald Lefcourt's testimony.
[Click Here] to contact members of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees.
(Don't forget to also contact your own Senators and Representatives.)