A new article by Penn Law Professor Shaun Ossei-Owusu reveals the critical role of race in the development of a staple of the American criminal justice system: the constitutional guarantee of an attorney for defendants too poor to afford one. “The Sixth Amendment Façade: The Racial Evolution of the Right to Counsel,” forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, marshals “archival documents, primary sources, oral histories, case law, and secondary literature” to trace the history of indigent defense and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel from the early 20th century to the present, revealing how racial politics influenced the right’s creation, development, and later curtailment.
Shaun Ossei-Owusu is an interdisciplinary legal scholar with expertise in legal history, criminal law and procedure, civil rights, and the legal profession. His work sits at the intersection of law, history, and sociology, with a focus on how governments meet their legal obligations to provide services and benefits to poor people and racial minorities.
“[C]urrent scholarship overlooks the instrumental role race played in the development of right-to-counsel jurisprudence,” writes Ossei-Owusu. “History demonstrates that indigent defense is not a part of the criminal justice system that simply produces racially disparate outcomes. Instead, the politics of race fundamentally shaped indigent defense jurisprudence and policy. Inattention to this fact limits understandings of the right to counsel and ultimately of the criminal justice system itself.”
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