Access to Counsel for Defendants in Lower Criminal Courts
Forthcoming in Justice System Journal Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/0098261X.2021.1927267
Posted: 15 Sep 2021
Date Written: September 15, 2021
Criminal defendants unable to afford an attorney are entitled to one for free in the United States, but how and when they obtain access to that lawyer is another question. We examine judicial attitudes and behavior in granting access to counsel in areas where logistics are particularly forbidding. Based on survey responses from 1,091 magistrate judges presiding in lower criminal courts in suburban and rural jurisdictions in upstate New York, we describe both the procedures used to determine defendants’ financial eligibility for free counsel, and the logistical challenges that surround securing the physical presence of a lawyer at the first appearance in court. We find that judges strongly favor counsel’s presence in order to maintain courtroom efficiency, and sometimes depart from strict interpretation of financial eligibility guidelines to ensure representation. We introduce the concept of the “procedurally precautious judge” to describe the way these respondents carefully preserve the appearance of integrity in court operations even while availability of counsel for defendants is limited.
Keywords: Access to counsel, indigent defense, lower criminal courts, judicial decision-making
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