Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Extending Meaningful Assistance to Misdemeanor Defendants

Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Extending Meaningful Assistance to Misdemeanor Defendants

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION .73

II. THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO COUNSEL IN MISDEMEANOR CASES .78

a. Drawing the Constitutional Line .78

b. Misdemeanor Representation in States.80

c. Funding as a Barrier to Indigent Defense Services ...84

III. NEED FOR CHANGE: WHY MISDEMEANOR DEFENDANTS NEED ASSISTANCE.87

a. Even misdemeanors can be complex, and require the assistance of a lawyer.88

b. Consequences of a Misdemeanor Conviction.89

c. Information and advocacy can make a difference ...93

d. Need for Change.94

IV. SOLUTIONS.94

a. Value of non-lawyer helpers.95

b. Drawing from the social-worker model.95

c. Juris Case Workers in practice.97

d. Source of Juris Case Workers.98

e. Employment structure of Juris Case Workers.98

f. Concerns.99

V. CONCLUSION.101

I. INTRODUCTION

Misdemeanor cases make up a significant portion of federal and state criminal cases. In fact, most convictions in the United States are misdemeanors: while approximately one million felony convictions are handed down yearly, ten times as many misdemeanor cases are filed annually, "flooding lower courts, jails, probation offices, and public defender offices."1 In California, the state with the largest court system in the world-serving a population of more than 38 million people-misdemeanor filings in superior courts totaled 926,169 for fiscal year 2012-2013.2 Due to issues with underreporting, the national statistics are likely to be lower than the reality,3 but misdemeanor cases still comprise a significantly larger portion of the criminal caseload than felony cases.

Yet misdemeanor cases are given inadequate attention, despite their frequency and quantity. "Massive, underfunded, informal, and careless, the misdemeanor system propels defendants through in bulk with scant attention to individualized cases and often without counsel."4 Even in cases where counsel is provided to misdemeanants, often times the defenders' overwhelming workloads and competing responsibilities make it difficult for them to commit sufficient time and adequate attention to provide effective representation in the misdemeanor dispute.5 Because misdemeanor courts often do not make significant differentiations between the legal treatment of one defendant and another,6 these courts have metaphorically been referred to as an "assembly line":

On this view, everyone who is arrested pursuant to low-level policing priorities is mechanically convicted and punished, even if the sanctions are minor. Prosecutors indiscriminately charge all cases and reflexively seek convictions, and courts robotically convict and issue standard sentences without regard to individual characteristics of cases or defendants.7

Thus convictions are often generated in bulk, without meaningful scrutiny of the legitimacy of the convictions being processed and whether the misdemeanant's due process rights are sufficiently protected.8

The assembly-line nature of misdemeanor arraignments is evident in the courtroom. In New York City, an estimated 100 to 200 cases are arraigned during a single shift of approximately six hours.9 Prosecutors often review the paperwork for less than five minutes before designing a plea offer, and defense attorneys often first meet their clients at arraignment.10 Such meetings usually take place "either in a small, caged-in interview room [attached to] the holding cells ... or in the hallway."11 It is during these meetings, which last for about ten to fifteen minutes, that lawyers meet with their clients to discuss how they will approach the bench.

In the Manhattan Criminal Court, arraignments are held from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day.12 I attended an evening arraignment session at the Manhattan Criminal Court. The court's attitude towards individual mis- demeanor cases was jarring. There was one misdemeanor defendant who was slow to move off to the side after his arraignment hearing because he was asking for clarification on his next court appearance date. …

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