America’s prisons and jails hold more people, in sheer numbers and on a per-capita basis, than any country on earth, including China, Cuba and Iran. Prisons and jails are kept full through the ceaseless work of a massive criminal justice apparatus that processes the 14 million people arrested every year, on an average of about 26 every minute, according to the Justice Department. The vast majority of those arrested are poor, often desperately so; many are mentally ill, homeless or addicted to drugs and alcohol. Only a small percentage can afford a private attorney.
The rest are represented by a public defender, free of charge. This extraordinary right dates only to 1962, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Clarence Gideon, a penniless and uneducated Florida man forced to represent himself in a felony robbery case after being denied a court-appointed attorney.