Defending the Poor.

The Justice Department has launched a program to help states bolster and repair their legal defense systems for people who cannot afford a lawyer. While all states have a system in place for indigent defense, as it's known, the design of the programs and their quality vary from state to state. A Harvard constitutional lawyer, Laurence Tribe, will head the effort:

During a speech at a recent indigent defense symposium in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Eric Holder said the system is in 'crisis.' The conference was the first such Justice Department-sponsored event in a decade. To support it, the federal government paid to fly more than 200 indigent defense experts from around the country to Washington.

'Some might wonder what the United States attorney general is doing at a conference largely about the defense that poor people receive in state and local courts,' Holder told the symposium audience. 'Although they may stand on different sides of an argument, different sides of a courtroom, the prosecution and defense can and must share the same objective: Not victory, but justice.'

This is especially critical, since poor defendants are often more likely to be in jail longer, if only because they can't afford bond, according to an NPR report. Because they're stuck in jail, instead of being able to help in their defense or enroll in programs or community service projects that show efforts at rehabilitation, they can get higher sentences later on. It's not that attorneys appointed to defend the poor are bad. They're often overworked, struggling with limited resources, and managing clients who have many problems. Those kinds of lopsided fights aren't the kind even many prosecutors want to win.

-- Monica Potts

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