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Promoting Justice for All

Wednesday, November 8, 2017
By Alan R. Hanson, Acting Assistant Attorney General

Alan R. Hanson, Acting Assistant Attorney General

A few days ago, the Office of Justice Programs was honored to host the third meeting of the Department of Justice's Right to Counsel National Consortium. It brought together judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, community stakeholders and criminal defenders. These are individuals involved in ensuring that all persons charged with committing a crime have their Sixth Amendment rights safeguarded.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered keynote remarks at the meeting, and we were privileged to have many distinguished guests and national leaders attend.

"Protecting the right to counsel is a fundamental component of preserving the rule of law and ensuring equal access to justice," the Deputy Attorney General said. "The point of the rule of law is to maintain a fair and rational system characterized by universality—that is, it applies equally to each person. Under the rule of law, the people tasked with enforcing the law must do so impartially."

The right to counsel is the foundation of true justice.  Our nation's Constitution enshrines this right, and the courts have ratified it as a cornerstone of American criminal justice. It is a critical constitutional right.

However, too many defendants, many of them poor, still do not receive the full benefit of this most fundamental of rights. It is more than half-a-century after the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, amongthe most important cases in all of American jurisprudence. The decision guarantees access to counsel, yet, regrettably, our system has too often failed those who have been, as Anthony Lewis put it in Gideon's Trumpet, "tossed aside by life."

"Equal justice under law" is more than just an inscription on the frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court building; it is the basis of our system of laws.  If this principle is undermined by under-resourced and over-burdened defenders, or by judges who fail to appoint qualified attorneys to handle cases, the system's integrity is compromised, and we all pay a price.

That's why the Department of Justice is committed to upholding and improving access to counsel.  We have an Attorney General and a Deputy Attorney General who understand very well that our system of justice demands balance – qualified prosecutors and qualified defense attorneys, both sides committed, to seeking justice ‒ not just to winning cases.

The Office of Justice Programs, primarily through our Bureau of Justice Assistance, is playing an important role in ensuring that this right is honored both in spirit and in practice. We have also worked closely with the field, along with our colleagues at the Office for Access to Justice, in addressing this important issue.

Attorney General Sessions said recently that the integrity and effectiveness of our system of justice rests, among other things, on our courts, which "ensure that our rights are protected, that defendants receive a fair trial, and that cases are decided by the facts and the law."  Our constitutional guarantees of due process need to be protected, and competent counsel helps us realize these fundamental aims of the court system.

OJP is especially invested in these goals.  A program from the Bureau of Justice Assistance is bringing together researchers and practitioners to test effective defense strategies in the criminal justice system.

Through this BJA program, innovative defense sites highlight the importance of collaboration within the justice system. By working together, the key offices are able to evaluate their defense delivery systems and use evidence-based solutions to address their system needs. For example, by providing counsel at first appearance in Contra Costa, California, the public defenders office, the district attorney and local law enforcement have worked together and reduced the failure-to-appear rate from nearly 54 percent to 17 percent of weekly misdemeanor cases. 

We're fighting to protect the rights of juvenile defendants, as well. Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is devoting substantial resources to strengthening juvenile defense, providing funding and support to improve access to high-quality juvenile defense. 

OJP's 2017 awards of $3 million support training and technical assistance for securing Americans' constitutional rights at the state and local levels. These TTA providers assist with strategic planning, evaluations, and hands-on training and implementation of effective policies and reforms.

The right to counsel remains a priority for OJP.  We believe everyone should have access to highly qualified, well-resourced representation at every stage of justice proceedings.  The fairness of the system, the future of those who come into contact with it, and the safety of our communities all depend on it.

The Right to Counsel National Campaign is the engine that has been powering this work. By all accounts, this campaign has been a success, and we're making progress as a nation toward our goal of equal justice grounded in fair representation. OJP is proud to be involved in this important work.

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