By Thomas K. Maher
On Dec. 2, 2016, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, which was the result of work by Chief Justice Martin, met for the final time. The commission worked through five committees, including the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee. The Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee worked on several subjects, including the age of juvenile jurisdiction, pre-trial release, case management and indigent defense. The work on indigent defense was done through a subcommittee, which included members with a wide range of experience, including two Chief Public Defenders, an elected District Attorney, a Sheriff, Magistrate, as well as District and Superior Court judges. Professor Jessica Smith, from the School of Government, served as the reporter, and was instrumental in the production of the final report.
The 51-page report provides an in-depth discussion of the many challenges that any indigent defense system faces. The report also makes specific recommendations for improving North Carolina’s indigent defense system, some of which can be implemented without legislative action, and some of which will require legislation. These recommendations are a long-term blueprint for strengthening indigent defense. All of the recommendations are geared toward achieving a criminal justice system in which the quality of justice does not depend on the wealth of the defendant. The report emphasizes the importance of providing effective assistance of counsel to all who find themselves in the criminal justice system, observing that the cost of not providing effective representation includes not only wrongful convictions, but also excessive pre-trial detention, increased pressure on innocent persons to plead guilty, excessive sentences, and the dramatic collateral consequences that often accompany a criminal conviction. Indeed, the opening paragraph of the report states:
As the United States Supreme Court recently declared: “No one doubts the fundamental character of a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the ‘Assistance of Counsel.’ ” This right is so critical that the high Court has deemed its wrongful deprivation to constitute “structural” error, affecting the very “framework within which the trial proceeds.” For indigent defendants, this fundamental right to effective assistance of counsel must be provided at state expense. When the system fails to provide this right, it denies indigent defendants justice. That denial has very real consequences for defendants, including excessive pretrial detention, increased pressure on innocent persons to plead guilty, wrongful convictions, and excessive sentences
There is no doubt that indigent defense throughout much of the United States is in a state of crisis, and that North Carolina is beginning to see the impact of lessened resources for indigent defense. The eroding quality of indigent defense is an issue that concerns not only the usual liberal supporters of providing adequate counsel for those too poor to hire a lawyer, but also conservatives, such as Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries. The bi-partisan recognition of the importance of a healthy indigent defense system should provide hope that positive change is possible.