Gideon in the Desert: An Empirical Study of Providing Counsel to Criminal Defendants in Rural Places
29 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2020
Date Written: July 1, 2019
Access to counsel for criminal defendants is a continuing challenge in rural localities, notwithstanding the mandates of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. In this Article, we first review the state of the law on access to counsel in criminal cases, noting the latitude allowed to state and local governments in their policy decisions. We then examine empirical approaches to measuring access to counsel and describe in detail both the law and the data on this issue from the state of Texas. We present exploratory analyses of those data comparing rural and urban places for various aspects of access to counsel, including rules governing eligibility for, and rates of actual use of, appointed attorneys. We find that Texas counties appointed counsel to an average of 29% of misdemeanor defendants in 2016-17, but that rates were significantly lower in rural than urban counties. Total expenditures averaged $278 per case, though 8% of that amount was recouped from defendants. In rural areas specifically, we find the absence of any local towns and low lawyer populations were associated with especially low levels of access to counsel. The presence of an organized defense provider such as a public defender office, however, was associated with significantly higher rates of access to counsel in counties. Finally, we review our findings in the light of other research on the impact of programs targeting rural areas intended to improve access to counsel for defendants.
Keywords: counsel, rural, Texas, indigent defense
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