Booker, Durbin Introduce Bills to Improve Access to Counsel Guaranteed by Constitution and Increase Representation of Public Defenders in U.S. Criminal Justice System



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Booker, Durbin Introduce Bills to Improve Access to Counsel Guaranteed by Constitution and Increase Representation of Public Defenders in U.S. Criminal Justice System

Landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision establishing Constitutional right to counsel was decided 60 years ago this week.


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chair of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a package of bills geared towards improving the U.S. criminal justice system: the Providing a Quality Defense Act and the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act. The legislation would help public defender officers provide the representation guaranteed by the Constitution and add a member with a public defender background to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to bring a unique perspective in establishing our nation’s sentencing guidelines.

Senator Booker delivered remarks on the Senate floor today to mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18th and discuss the legislation. In Gideon, the Supreme Court unanimously held that every American has the constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases regardless of wealth; the case gave birth to the public defense system we know today.

His floor remarks can be viewed here.

“Public defenders are a lifeline for many people navigating the criminal justice system. But not only underpaid and overworked, public defenders are also underrepresented in the decision-making process for establishing our nation’s sentencing guidelines,” said Senator Booker. “If we want to take concrete steps to fix our broken criminal justice system, we need to ensure our sentencing guidelines include the unique perspective of public defenders, as well as equip them with resources necessary to effectively represent criminal defendants in the legal system. This package of legislation will provide indigent defendants with the representation they deserve, as well as add a member to the U.S. Sentencing Commission with a public defender background to bring a new and valuable perspective to our sentencing guidelines.”

“Public defenders bear the responsibility of ensuring our right to due process, a cornerstone of the American justice system,” said Senator Durbin. “They ought to have a seat at the table, a place on the bench, and the resources to fulfill their mission critical to the rule of law. Our bills help support public defenders by adding a federal defender seat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and bolstering resources to ensure public defense remains a competitive field of law that can attract and retain quality talent. These are two steps that we can take to help ensure a fair justice system for all, and I’m proud to help introduce both of these pieces of legislation.”

Providing a Quality Defense Act

 This legislation would provide indigent criminal defendants with meaningful and competent representation. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Establish a grant program for public defense offices to hire public defenders or panel attorneys, case workers, social workers, investigators, or paralegals. These grants could also be used to achieve pay parity for public defenders or panel attorneys with prosecutors’ offices
  • Provide grant funds to public defense offices to establish loan repayment assistance programs for public defenders
  • Direct the Attorney General develop best practices and recommendations for public defender and panel attorney caseloads and for the compensation of public defenders and panel attorneys
  • Allow states to report data about criminal cases heard by courts to the Attorney General for the purpose of developing best practices
  • Establish grants for educational programs for public defenders and panel attorneys, including for ongoing training and support

“The constitutional right to counsel is central to our country’s promise of equal justice under law,” said April Frazier Camara, President and CEO of NLADA. “Public defenders are committed advocates who work every day to make that promise real, but too often we ask them to do that without giving them the tools and resources they need. Investing in public defenders will not only prevent wrongful convictions and unnecessary incarceration, but also strengthen communities and improve public safety. This is urgently-needed legislation and we urge Congress to pass it quickly.”

“Sixty years ago, in the midst of a civil rights revolution, the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright to address our nation’s failure to ensure equal justice in our criminal courts,” said Jonathan Rapping, President and Founder of Gideon’s Promise. “It recognized that the right to counsel was a national mandate, essential to ensuring a strong democracy. Although the number of lives impacted by our criminal justice system has grown exponentially over this period, this mandate remains unrealized. It is past time to make a national commitment to fulfilling Gideon’s promise. The Providing a Quality Defense Act is a necessary step towards realizing the promise of equal justice.”

“Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v Wainwright, our nation continues to grapple with a systemic crisis, leaving too many public defenders with excessively high caseloads and stranding people of modest financial means to needlessly linger in jail. These systemic breakdowns amount to the criminalization of poverty,” said Demelza Baer, Director of Public Policy of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The Quality Defense Act will support public defender offices as a means to help ensure that the right to counsel guaranteed in Gideon is delivered and that every person receives equal justice under law. We applaud Senator Booker for introducing these necessary reforms and look forward to the Quality Defense Act becoming law.”

“Public defenders should have access to the resources required to provide adequate representation on behalf of their clients under the law,” said Brandon Tucker, Sr. Director of Policy & Government Affairs of Color Of Change. “The Quality Defense Act of 2023 acknowledges that public defenders are pivotal to redefine public safety beyond policing.”

The bill is endorsed by: National Legal Aid & Defender Association; Equal Justice Initiative; Color of Change; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Gideon’s Promise; Sentencing Project; Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights;; Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

The full text of the bill can be found here.

Sentencing Commission Improvements Act

This legislation would add a new, ex officio nonvoting member with a public defender background to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is tasked to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including sentencing guidelines; advise and assist Congress and the executive branch in developing crime policy; and research and distribute information on crime and sentencing issues.

“We welcome Senators Booker and Durbin’s support for a federal defender ex officio,” said Jon Sands, co-chair of the Federal Public & Community Defenders Legislative Committee & Federal Defender for the District of Arizona. “The time is past due for Congress to ensure defender representation on the United States Sentencing Commission. As the Judicial Conference has long recognized, a defender ex officio would make federal sentencing fairer and more just.”

The bill is endorsed by: National Legal Aid & Defender Association; Federal Public and Community Defenders Legislative Committee; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Families Against Mandatory Minimums; Tzedek Association; Equal Justice Initiative; Sentencing Project; Color of Change; Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants; NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

The full text of the bill can be found here.


About Gideon’s Promise

Gideon’s Promise is a 501(c)(3) public defender organization whose mission is to transform the criminal justice system by building a movement of public defenders who provide equal justice for marginalized communities.  Founded in 2007 by Jonathan Rapping, the organization has grown from a single training program for sixteen attorneys in two public defender offices in Georgia and Louisiana to a national enterprise with 1,500 participants in 45 public defender offices across 27 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The organization’s initial three-year program for new public defenders has expanded into a comprehensive program model that supports public defenders at all levels of their career.