Our legal system has features in place designed to ensure that everyone who is accused of a crime gets a fair chance to have their voice heard and fight the charges in court with the assistance of a qualified attorney. Unfortunately for Wisconsinites, a public defender shortage could make it harder than ever to get the legal assistance and other rights promised by the Constitution.
The constitutional rights of the accused
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides us with several concrete rights that, in theory, help to protect us from things such as police overreach and injustice in the court system.
For example, the Sixth Amendment grants you the right to have an attorney present to help you defend yourself against criminal charges in court, as well as during other essential steps of the criminal justice process – such as during police questioning and lineups. You also have the right to a speedy trial, which means that the state cannot hold you in jail for an extended period of time without giving you the opportunity to be heard in court.
Wisconsin’s public defender shortage
When someone cannot afford to hire an attorney, the state must provide them with a public defender to uphold their constitutional right to representation. Unfortunately for people facing criminal charges in Wisconsin, there are currently not enough public defenders to go around.
This problem is especially severe in Milwaukee. According to reports, many criminal defendants have to wait two or three weeks before being able to consult an attorney and ask them questions after their arrest. A few have even waited 70 or 80 days before being able to see an attorney.
This shortage of public defenders is such a large problem because it makes it harder for people to vindicate their constitutional right to representation and their right to a speedy trial. Facing criminal charges can be a scary experience. It is much worse when you do not have access to an attorney who can answer your questions and prepare you for what is to come.