This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.
If you live in a large city, you probably don’t worry much about finding a lawyer, should you ever need one. Whether you can afford that lawyer is another matter, but they are available. As a city-dweller, I can easily recall the names of several local defense attorneys just from thinking of bus advertisements and billboards I pass on a typical drive.
In much of rural America, the situation looks vastly different.
The Denver Post reported this week that 23 of Colorado’s 64 counties now fall into the category of “legal deserts”: mostly rural places where there is fewer than one attorney per 1,000 people. It’s hardly just a Colorado problem, said Pamela Metzger, director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University. She told me that lawyers in rural areas skew much older than those in cities and are retiring at a much faster pace than they are being replaced, citing research on legal deserts in Texas.
“We don’t teach about it in law school. We don’t make it a viable career opportunity, and we’ve priced everybody out of practicing in rural areas,” Metzger said.
Legal deserts are just one of many barriers people face in obtaining legal representation, the most apparent one being cost: By some estimates, 80% of criminal defendants can’t afford a lawyer. Indeed, 2023 marks 60 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that state courts must provide attorneys to criminal defendants who can’t afford their own.
The case spurred the creation of public defender officers as a counterpart to prosecutors in the criminal system. Notably, though,