Gideon held that “fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law . . . cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” The Court also discussed equality before the law in another case decided on the same day as Gideon, March 18, 1963, reiterating a statement from a previous case that “there can be no equal justice” where the kind of justice a person gets “‘depends on the amount of money he has.’”
Fifty years later, everyone agrees that governments have failed to do what the Supreme Court said was constitutionally required in Gideon. Judges conduct hearings in which poor people accused of crimes and poor children charged with acts of delinquency appear without lawyers. Many plead guilty without lawyers. Others plead guilty and are sentenced after learning about plea offers from lawyers they met moments before and will never see again. Some courts handle an enormous volume of cases in assembly-line manner. Many courts are plea mills, courts of profit, not justice, that accept guilty pleas and impose fines without any inquiry into the ability of defendants to pay, setting them up for failure and return to jail, our modern day debtors’ prisons.