ILRC celebrates 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright by continuing to fight for access to counsel for immigrants

(California)—This weekend, the ILRC is proud to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright, a modern triumph in safeguarding one of the most essential privileges of a democracy: the right to legal counsel in criminal proceedings. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gideon 60 years ago, there have been significant improvements in ensuring all have access to legal counsel within the criminal context, but there is still a long way to go. As an organization that works to serve the immigrant community, we know there is more work to be done to ensure all within this nation have the protections of a thriving democracy. 

In many counites across California, defendants are not provided with counsel at arraignment and are pressured to plead guilty to charges without consulting an attorney.  While this is bad for any defendant, it can be catastrophic if the defendant is not a U.S citizen because even a misdemeanor conviction with no jail term can cause terrible immigration penalties including ICE detention without bond and deportation.  To realize the promise of Gideon, ILRC and ACLU are working to ensure that all individuals are afforded meaningful representation at arraignment to avoid grave injustices throughout California. 

Gideon requires a strong indigent defense system. California has enacted laws to reduce prison sentences to better fit the offense and to vacate convictions that were unlawfully imposed, including where error resulted in denial of rights to immigrant defendants. Because California public defender offices already are underfunded, the state allocated funds for a three-year grant to offices working to implement the new laws. However, in the middle of this project, the Governor’s January Budget eliminates the funding, citing budget concerns. The ACLU, ILRC, and other groups are urging the Assembly and Senate Budget Subcommittee-5s to preserve the funding. Not only does this work save the state millions of dollars by lowering prison population, but it provides low-income people with counsel they need to obtain basic justice. 

Finally, the United States does not provide legal counsel to immigrants combatting the complex immigration system in place. Recently this led to outrage, as images of children having to represent themselves in immigration court emerged. This is merely one example of the dangers of denying due process to vulnerable populations, often left to fend for themselves to no avail. 

Our work to expand representation for all is ever more pressing and necessary. The work to expand due process to immigrants is not new in California. In 2015, Californians fought for the One California program to ensure immigrants were given access to high-quality counsel as they took on their immigration cases. However, immigrants who have certain convictions were left out of those protections, leaving a vulnerable part of this community without any representation in their cases. This is why this year we have been working with our partners CIPC, CARECEN, AJSoCal, and Vera, to ensure One California expands eligibility to those who might need it the most.  

“Our #Rep4All campaign stands on the shoulders of Gideon vs. Wainwright,” says Krsna Avila, staff attorney at the ILRC helping lead these efforts. “Roughly 77% of persons facing deportation have no legal representation, even though they are three times more likely to win their case if they have an attorney.” 

As we celebrate Gideon, we must continue our work to make its promise a reality for all people: “From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.”