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New Report Reveals Urgent Need to Educate Americans on Right to Counsel

Houston Police arrests a young man in downtown Houston.

Houston Police arrests a young man in downtown Houston. New report focuses on how well Americans understand public defense and their right to counsel.

The right to an attorney in a criminal case hails from the United States Constitution; however, according to a new report, “Americans’ Views on Public Defenders and the Right to Counsel," very few participants from focus groups were aware of this. Released today by the Right to Counsel National Campaign at American University’s School of Public Affairs, the report outlines the results of a year-long opinion study focused on how well Americans understand public defense and their right to counsel.

“This report reveals a clear need for public education about the constitutional right to counsel, the realities of the state of public defense on the ground, and the public and government support necessary to ensure that this fundamental right is upheld,” said Kim Ball, director of AU’s Justice Programs Office, which houses the Right to Counsel National Campaign.

Depending on the state or county, up to 90 percent of the 2.3 million Americans who are currently incarcerated have been represented by publicly funded attorneys.

“A functional, well-funded public defender system is critically important, yet the new data from this report shows a gap in the public’s understanding of it,” said Ball.

According to the study, researchers estimate that 80 percent of Americans believe that public defenders do not have enough time to dedicate to their cases, and 70 percent believe that their state is doing a “fair” or “poor” job at providing access to justice for low-income people. More than 60 percent support an increase in state funding for public defenders.

The study also reveals that respondents are more likely to support an increase in tax spending when they view the role of public defenders in light of the profession’s core values of “fairness”, “equality”, and “fundamental rights.” For example, when it was suggested that public defense is necessary “to prevent innocent people from going to jail”, “to make the justice system fairer”, or “to prevent young people from having their lives ruined by minor offenses”, more than half of those polled supported the idea of increased tax spending.

The R2C researchers and their colleagues from Belden Russonello Strategists, a consulting group that conducts survey and focus group research, interviewed 1,500 respondents across the United States via focus groups and opinion polls from April through October 2016. Questions gauged the public’s initial understanding of the right to counsel and public defense, and researchers also tested and determined the most effective educational tools that can be used to expand awareness and correct misconceptions.

To learn more about the study, join R2C for a Facebook Live on March 20 at 2:30 PM EST. For media inquiries, please contact: Natasha Abel at nabel@american.edu or 202-885-5943.