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A New Yorker cartoon depicts a lawyer facing his client, asking the critical question: “You’ve got a pretty good case, how much justice can you afford?” Of course, the promise is equal justice for all. But that is an aspiration, not reality. The poor person accused of a crime cannot afford any justice. So how much justice is society going to provide? Competent counsel for the accused, with the resources needed for investigation and consultation with experts, is essential for the proper working of our adversary system of justice. States can afford to provide high quality representation for the accused – appropriate for the high stakes involved: liberty or even life – but most states are not willing to provide a decent level of representation for poor people accused of a crime. The result in many places is a system that lacks legitimacy and credibility, sometimes does not provide reliable results, and, on occasion, produces great miscarriages of justice.
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