Inside NACDL: Celebrating Heroes in the Struggle to Reform Indigent Defense

Celebrating Heroes in the Struggle to Reform Indigent Defense

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

In 2004, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid & Indigent Defendants, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, released its report on the state of indigent defense. The exhaustive study reached “the inescapable conclusion that 40 years after the Gideon decision, the promise of equal justice for the poor remains unfulfilled in this country.”1 

The struggle to provide fully qualified attorneys with manageable caseloads and adequate support resources continues as a largely state-by-state, sometimes county-by-county battle, waged day in and day out, year in and year out, by a small cadre of dedicated professionals. This hearty band of stalwarts, rarely armed with little more than the force of reason and the torch of justice, seeks access to the precious funding necessary to sustain a credible public defense infrastructure. They compete against every conceivable interest group that stakes its own weighty claims on the public fisc, often backed by the most powerful interests in society. In contrast, the crusaders for indigent defense champion the most vulnerable and least identifiable constituency: the nameless, faceless poor who are accused of the highest of crimes and the pettiest of misdemeanors.

Victories are hard to come by in this epic struggle. Progress, often measured in modest increments, is the result of painstaking persistence and patience. But however incremental the advances may be, we must celebrate when there is a breakthrough and there is real reform that changes a state’s approach to indigent defense from callous indifference to enlightened support. The warriors for indigent defense deserve the recognition and appreciation of a grateful profession — as do the states and their elected leadership when they recognize their responsibility to put public funds behind the illusive promise of Gideon. 

And so it is entirely appropriate that this issue of The Champion offers a salute to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the heroes in the struggle for indigent defense who sustained a reform movement for more than a decade. The recent legislation is a tangible and irreversible step on the path to real reform. This month’s cover story describes the reform movement, identifying the key people and the evolving strategy that produced this advance. We harbor no illusions, however. This is only a first step toward the goal of full and sustainable funding necessary to support a high quality indigent defense system. But, we can certainly say that progress has been made when the governor of a state that has resisted reform for three decades proclaims that “it is important to provide indigent defendants with competent legal representation to assure that our criminal justice system works, and works fairly,” and pledges to work with other stakeholders “to lay the groundwork for further reforms.” Moreover, when that pledge is backed up by legislation providing tangible reform, that undeniably is progress.

Those responsible for that progress must be recognized for their dedication, skill, and willingness to seek justice as voluntary, unpaid conscripts in this unending struggle. They deserve this recognition if for no other reason than to  rejuvenate their internal fortitude so that they may resume the struggle, leading us to the next incremental advance in the journey to fulfill the promise of Gideon. 

We at NACDL salute all of the leaders in the struggle to achieve reform in Virginia: the Virginia Fair Trial Project, the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Covington & Burling, the Virginia Bar Association, the Virginia State Bar, Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Ken Stolle, Rep. Lacey Putney, Attorney General Robert McDonnell, and the many other individuals and organizations that helped achieve reform. They are the true heroes of our profession.

To this list, I proudly add NACDL, its Indigent Defense Committee, and its membership, for the sustained commitment to national indigent defense reform. The Virginia initiative, which began years ago when Paul Petterson was NACDL’s indigent defense coordinator, was sustained throughout the distinguished tenures of each of our succeeding indigent defense counsel, Kate Jones, Catherine Beane, and Malia Brink. They have enabled NACDL to fulfill its institutional mission to seek justice and due process for all.



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  1. American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice, Introduction at 1 (2004).


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