This report begins with a discussion on the current state of the law concerning access to counsel for criminal defendants, reminding us that because the law presumes everyone innocent unless proven guilty, the law favors pretrial release. It describes the far-reaching and well-documented adverse effects of denying counsel at the earliest stages of a criminal prosecution, a situation that presents numerous constitutional concerns. Without a lawyer at these preliminary stages to marshal resources and advocate on the accused’s behalf, judges are more likely to order a financial condition on release before trial, which results in low income and poor defendants – who are disproportionately people of color – remaining incarcerated, and for longer periods of time. In addition, without the advice of a lawyer, an unrepresented defendant who is unaware of and untrained in the law may speak or remain silent at a bail hearing to his or her later detriment. Defendants incarcerated from the point of arrest also experience substantial prejudice in their ability to conduct an immediate investigation, prepare for trial and build a defense. Collateral consequences also flow from unnecessary pretrial incarceration: the accused may lose a job, his or her home, and the ability to support loved ones. A lawyer’s effective advocacy is a vital safeguard against bail-setting practices that often are excessive for economically disadvantaged people.
The impact is felt not only by the individual, but by society as a whole. State and local governments needlessly add to the taxpayer’s burden by, prior to trial, incarcerating many individuals who pose no public safety risk, but who were simply unable to effectively advocate for themselves. In short, there is no question that early assignment of counsel not only has a significant and positive impact on individual cases, but also promotes better societal outcomes. Thus, when a poor person about to go before the court for the first hearing after arrest asks, “Don’t I need a lawyer?” the unequivocal answer is “Yes.”
Although early access to counsel has taken hold in some jurisdictions, too many indigent defendants across the country face the daunting specter of representing themselves when courts fail to appoint counsel and then determine whether an accused will remain free or incarcerated in the days, weeks, or months before trial. Accordingly, this report recognizes that a concerted effort from all branches of government is needed to make the early availability of counsel a reality. The report is intended to inform and guide judges, defenders and prosecutors as they carry out their duties to safeguard the rights found in our Constitution. It is also meant to assist policymakers in developing solutions to the problem of absent counsel in first judicial appearances, and sets out six pragmatic recommendations for the local, state and federal governments to bring the promise of effective counsel at the first judicial bail hearing to fruition.p. 1.