Low-income people are disproportionately present in both the criminal justice system and wrongful convictions. A huge cause of this is ineffective assistance of counsel perpetuated by the public defender system.
Public defenders—attorneys who represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney—suffer from massive, unmanageable caseloads, and they are often chronically underfunded, meaning that they are unable to conduct thorough investigations. The American Bar Association urges lawyers to take on a maximum of 150 cases per year. It is incredibly common for public defenders to exceed that amount, and some take on as many as 600 cases per year.
The famed Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer” follows a poor man from Wisconsin, Steven Avery, as he is exonerated through DNA of a 1985 rape only to be convicted of a separate murder in 2006. Avery, who was only able to hire attorneys for his second trial because he won a lawsuit from the first wrongful conviction, described the experience of low-income people in the criminal justice system when he said, “Poor people lose. Poor people lose all the time.”
While public defenders are some of the most dedicated and passionate advocates, problems with the system mean they are often unable to properly represent people. In other words, poor people cannot afford justice and more easily fall victim to wrongful convictions.
“I think the people going to prison that are actually innocent are disproportionately poor,” said Brett DeGroff, a defender with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office and Criminal Defense Resource Center. “They’re disproportionately living in poor and minority communities that are over-policed in ways that suburban and wealthier communities are not. And the people that are getting convicted happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe. The scary thing is once you drill deeper, it could be anybody from those communities.”