In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that "any person ... who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." But as John Oliver explains in his latest Last Week Tonight report, the public defender system has been warped beyond recognition – leading to underfunded departments, pressured guilty pleas and the absurd notion of being billed for a supposedly free attorney.
Oliver breaks down the shocking numbers: In Fresno County, California, public defenders handle up to 1,000 felony cases per year, despite state guidelines stating they should only take on 150. According to a 2009 report, part-time defenders in New Orleans were limited to an average of seven minutes to prepare cases.
"That is not long enough to prepare anything," Oliver says. "If I only had seven minutes to prepare this show, I definitely would not be talking about public defenders right now. I'd be desperately trying to fill time by listing Muppets in order of fuckability."
The host continues to list absurd-sounding facts: 90 to 95 percent of U.S. criminal cases end in plea bargains, and the New Orleans Public Defenders Office was recently forced to set up a crowdfunding page to meet their budget.
"Access to a lawyer is supposed to be a constitutional right, and it is increasingly under threat," Oliver says. "For instance, in four states [Georgia, Missouri, Virginia, Maine], you can make so little that you qualify for food stamps but still not be poor enough to get state-funded representation. And in at least 43 states, you can be billed for a public defender."
"Fifty years after the Supreme Court gave everyone the fundamental right to an attorney, even if you can't afford one, we now have a system where the most vulnerable people are potentially being charged for access to a hideously broken system," he continues.
Oliver ends with a tragically hilarious depiction of a more accurate Miranda warning, with TV cops (including The Wire's Sonja Sohn and Law & Order's Jeremy Sisto) listing off injustices as they apprehend suspects – ending with the stern warning, "You're fucked."