Overview of the Right to Counsel National Campaign

Every person in the United States accused of a crime whose liberty is at stake has the constitutional right to an attorney. Today, this right to counsel, a right so fundamental it is written into the Constitution, is being denied across the country. The American public defense system has proven inadequate and the criminal justice system unfair. Innocent people are going to jail, young lives are being derailed, and people of color and those from low-income households are being disproportionately affected by the failures of the system. Public defenders are overburdened with overwhelmingly high caseloads and few resources, limiting their ability to provide effective, or sometimes even adequate, counsel.

Without action, nothing will change.

What Is the Right to Counsel National Campaign?

The Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C) is a public awareness initiative that uses value-based communication tactics to inform policymakers, criminal justice stakeholders, and the public about the importance of carrying out the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, the ways in which this right is not being implemented, the roles everyone from law enforcement officers to prosecutors to judges and court managers can play in ensuring that the constitutional right to counsel is upheld, and how to reform the public defense system with low-cost or no-cost policy solutions.

R2C also seeks to elevate the defender voice in criminal justice reform conversations and provides new opportunities for citizens to become engaged advocates, ensuring effective public defense delivery systems in all courts across the country. The campaign is led by the Justice Programs Office (JPO), a center at the School of Public Affairs at American University, in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) at the U.S. Department of Justice, and is comprised of a multidisciplinary, bipartisan group of consortium members.

How Does R2C Work?

Consortium members participate in local and national meetings of key criminal justice agencies and organizations as well as in meetings with policymakers to explain what the right to counsel entails, why it is important, how it currently exists in name only, and why policies that support and protect effective defense representation are essential for the criminal justice system as a whole.

Consortium members also engage in online outreach, providing easily shareable resources, such as fact sheets and messaging toolkits, to criminal justice practitioners, policymakers, and community members. These resources enhance the recipient’s understanding of the importance of, the values embodied by, and need of advocacy for effective public defense services for everyone. The resources also highlight the roles all system actors and community members can play in ensuring that this constitutional right is fully realized.

AU JPO's Genevieve Citrin and Preeti Menon; Photo Credit: American University JPO Staff

AU JPO's Genevieve Citrin and Preeti Menon; Photo Credit: American University JPO Staff

VANITA GUPTA Speaks at the R2C Second annual meeting

VANITA GUPTA Speaks at the R2C Second annual meeting

History of the Right to Counsel National Campaign

Recognizing the need for public defense reform at the state and local level, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) at the U.S. Department of Justice and JPO formed a steering committee to spearhead a new reform initiative made up of representatives from every facet of the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, state and local policymakers, defenders, court managers, and county executives, as well as representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Access.

From the beginning, all steering committee members agreed that the path of R2C would be charted by its consortium members. Accordingly, R2C strategically focuses on informing its consortium members about the importance of upholding the constitutional right to counsel and arming them with the necessary tools and skill sets to continue policy and cultural change.

Steering committee members were united in their belief the Right to Counsel initiative should advocate for improved public defense and its mission should be to change the culture as well as the structure of public defense. To do so, the steering committee envisioned a three-year public awareness campaign – the Right to Counsel National Campaign – spearheaded by a consortium of national, state, and local criminal justice stakeholders, community advocates, and policymakers. This consortium would be committed to ensuring the fulfillment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the effective delivery of public defense services as well as to continuing the reform movement after the conclusion of the three years.

To help the committee formally establish the mission and goals of R2C, the steering committee hired Edelman Intelligence in 2014. Edelman Intelligence conducted in-depth individual (IDI) interviews of steering committee members to identify the greatest needs for and challenges to implementing effective public defense reform and found broad consensus that a lack of resources, consistency, and public awareness about the failures of the criminal justice system to fully recognize the right to counsel all contribute to inadequate public defense.

The steering committee established the following goals for R2C:

  • Start a national conversation and raise public awareness about the importance of providing meaningful public defense services to individuals facing criminal charges who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.

  • Spearhead broad-based initiatives by policymakers in multiple sectors, both within and outside of the criminal justice system, that inspire key stakeholders and citizens to take appropriate action to address the crisis of public defense in their local jurisdictions.

  • Develop a strategic vision for the improvement of public defense that policymakers and criminal justice leaders can integrate into the planning and operation of their public defense systems.

Believing it was important to have a neutral party at the helm to focus on building this bipartisan, multidisciplinary consortium, the steering committee promoted JPO the leader of the overall campaign. JPO developed a theory of change (TOC) to map out the steps needed to achieve the all-encompassing goal of making long-lasting, sustainable structural changes to public defense systems that promote and ensure the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and accompanying Sixth Amendment provisions and cultural changes that honor and promote the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The R2C theory of change consists of four phases: information gathering, advocacy and outreach, implementation, and the final phase, where the idea and application of the Sixth Amendment the right to counsel is universal and effective public defense policies are the norm.

Additionally, in partnership with BJA, JPO was tasked with overseeing a working group recruited from steering committee members to develop and host annual national meetings intended to highlight and elevate the issues surrounding public defense. This working group would also benefit from guidance from subject matter experts at the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC), the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and the National Legal Aid Defenders Association (NLADA).

R2C was officially launched at the inaugural annual meeting held at BJA in November 2015. Since then, R2C has focused on outreach and public awareness, recruiting likely and unlikely allies across disciplines and party lines and developing champions of the right to counsel. R2C has garnered champions among local and state judges and court managers as well as at national organizations including Right on Crime, Pretrial Justice Institute, National Association of Counties, American Judges Association, National Sheriffs Association, and National Association for Court Management.

R2C has also developed a robust online presence, launched a webinar series, and conducted and released the findings of a public opinion survey. Its members have participated in numerous conferences and presented with R2C champions at many events, and R2C has hosted two annual meetings with a third scheduled for November 2017. These annual meetings are designed to celebrate R2C successes, continue to raise awareness about how all system actors play a role in ensuring the right to counsel in their jurisdictions, and provide an opportunity for groups that rarely get to engage with each other to take part in robust conversations about what their discipline is or is not doing, where they have encountered challenges, and think collectively about how to overcome those challenges to uphold the constitutional right to counsel.

With the groundwork laid under JPO’s leadership and the implementation of JPO’s theory of change, R2C is well on its way to achieving its vision. Looking ahead, R2C will expand its public awareness efforts through targeted outreach, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and focusing on developing discipline-specific solutions and action steps.

Highlights from the First Three Years

In the three years since its inception, the Right to Counsel National Campaign has a number of achievements its consortium members and champions can and should celebrate.

Year One

R2C was launched in 2015. In its first year alone, R2C planned, participated in, hosted, and presented at a variety of conferences and other major meetings, including the National Sheriff’s Association’s annual conference, the National Association of Counties’ annual conference, and the American Society of Criminology’s annual conference.

R2C hired a communications consulting firm to conduct market research to identify and develop messaging and communications strategies and began gathering and disseminating information to state and local policymakers, criminal justice system actors, and community representatives.

R2C also planned and held the Right to Counsel National Consortium Inaugural Meeting in November at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a part of the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice, launched its website, and wrote and publicized its first report about the first meeting.

Year Two

Year two of the campaign saw R2C continue its outreach efforts to collaborate with national criminal justice organizations, working to communicate that all system actors have a role in ensuring the right to counsel. R2C planned, participated in, and facilitated several conference secessions, including at the National Association of Court Management’s annual conference, the National Association of Counties’ annual conference, and the AmericanJudge’s Association annual conference on topics such as key considerations for reducing mental illness in jails, the importance of participatory defense, the role of court managers in ensuring the right to counsel, and the role of judges in ensuring the right to counsel.

R2C expanded its online outreach activities, and both started a monthly newsletter containing updates on R2C activities by its consortium members and launched a webinar series that combined quarterly updates to the field on R2C activities with specialized webinars on topics such as nontraditional ways to use research results and a townhall on the role of public defense in reentry. R2C also developed a social media strategy, established its presence on Facebook and Twitter, launched #right2counsel, and embarked upon efforts to build and broaden its reach through each channel.

In collaboration with R2C’s communications firm, R2C interviewed 1,500 Americans, through nationally distributed opinion polls, and held six focus groups in Houston, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia. R2C’s questions gauged the public’s initial understanding of and support for the right to counsel and public defense, and R2C also tested and determined the most effective marketing tools to be used to expand awareness and correct misconceptions.

R2C hosted its second annual meeting at the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2016.

Year Three

R2C entered its third year with a passionate group of allies actively championing the right to counsel and the effective delivery of public defense services. 

R2C continued to focus its efforts on raising public awareness and engaging national, state, and local criminal justice stakeholders, community advocates, and policymakers through online outreach, presentations at conferences, roundtable discussions, and webinars.

R2C released Americans’ Views on Public Defenders and the Right to Counsel, a report outlining the results of R2C’s year-long opinion research focused on how well Americans understand public defense and their right to counsel and an accompanying strategic messaging guide to help R2C consortium members and allies tailor key message components to their own constituencies and needs. To promote the report, JPO hosted a well-received Facebook Live event and made presentations throughout the year about the findings from Americans’ Views and system actors’ roles in ensuring the right to counsel at national conferences.

R2C hosted its third annual meeting at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a part of the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice.