Do Conservatives Now Believe in Lawyers for the Poor?

It’s safe to say that celebrating government programs that serve the poor has not been a priority at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

But with the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision establishing the right to counsel approaching Monday, the talk in one small corner of CPAC suggested that conservatives could be strong allies in efforts to shore up the nation’s collapsing system of indigent defense.

“It’s a fairness and moral issue,” Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told me. If the government tries to revoke a citizen’s freedom, he argued, it has to bear the cost of letting that person fight back.

At a panel on wrongful convictions on Friday, Christopher Durocher of the bipartisan Constitution Project told a roomful of conservative diehards that public defenders need more time and more resources. “Having zealous and competent defense counsel brings out the best in the system,” he said.

There were earnest nods, signs, and even an “amen” as the panel bemoaned a range of problems including prosecutorial misconduct, shoddy forensics, and the proliferation of criminal offenses at the state and federal levels.

Of course, conservatives do not begin the conversation about indigent defense by focusing on how woefully underfunded it remains. The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Cato Institute have both floated the idea of providing indigent defendants with vouchers that let them pick their own lawyers. TPPF also argues that decriminalizing select offenses and promoting victim-offender mediation, among other measures, can reduce the need for lawyers.

But the critical point is that the right is growing increasingly energized about ending the many sins of American criminal justice, as Steve Teles and I argued last fall in the Washington Monthly. At CPAC on Friday, the talk was not of rolling back mass incarceration to cut expenses, but of making sure individuals get a fair shake when the government comes after them. If that will cost money – and it will – there is good reason to think conservatives will go along.

David Dagan

David Dagan is a freelance journalist and a PhD student in political science at Johns Hopkins University. Find him on Twitter: @DavidDagan