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Culture as a Structural Problem in Indigent Defense

By Eve Brensike Primus. Full text here.

Indigent defense lawyers today are routinely overwhelmed by excessive caseloads, underpaid, inadequately supported, poorly trained, and left essentially unsupervised. The result is a serious cultural problem in indigent defense, especially in jurisdictions where such defense is handled by lawyers lacking the community and institutional reinforcement that strong public-defender offices can provide. Consequently, many indigent defendants who go through the criminal justice system (as well as the friends and families of defendants who suffer through these ordeals with them) often feel confused, angry, and ignored. They have no faith in the system or in the legitimacy of their convictions. Rather, they experience the criminal justice system as an assembly line to prison for poor people of color.

In this Article, I will argue that attempts at reform should focus on changing this cultural problem in indigent defense delivery systems. As was true in 1961 (when the Symposium that this Article celebrates was published), there is now a feeling that change is coming. A focus on improving the culture of indigent defense delivery systems can and should infuse current reform proposals and inform change going forward. Perhaps this time, we can learn from some of our past mistakes and move toward accomplishing some of the laudable goals that many have been advocating for over fifty years.