Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), which was signed into law by President Johnson on August 20, 2013. The CJA (codified at 18 U.S.C. §3006A) mandates funding for court-appointed counsel to represent indigent defendants charged with felonies or Class A misdemeanors in federal court. Although the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to counsel for the accused, it is silent as to whether the court must provide an attorney for a defendant who cannot afford one. It wasn’t until Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938), that the Supreme Court established the right to court-appointed counsel in all federal criminal cases.
Even after Johnson, however, no funding was provided for court-appointed lawyers. This often made it impossible for them to hire experts or investigators and to provide an adequate defense. The CJA mandated that court-appointed lawyers receive hourly fees and expenses. Six years later, an amendment to the Act provided for the hiring of full-time government defense lawyers. Today, the federal Defender Services program serves 91 of the 94 federal judicial districts.
Although providing court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants may seem like an unqualified good, the system has its drawbacks. Funding remains a problem. During the 2013 sequestration, for example, federal defenders’ budgets were cut drastically. Furthermore, the severity of mandatory-minimum sentencing means that prosecutors have enormous power to force defendants into plea bargains. This situation has led some to argue that indigent federal defendants are worse off now than they were before the passage of the CJA. For an example of such an argument, see this 2013 article from the Yale Law Journal. For more on the history of the CJA, see this article on the United States Courts website.