Three lawsuits filed in recent weeks have challenged the way Mississippi provides criminal defense to the poor. They are the latest in a handful of suits nationwide attacking what defense lawyers say is the hidden price of the war on crime: the erosion of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Increased arrests and longer sentences have contributed to the national drop in crime, but at a high cost, says Jackson, Miss., civil rights lawyer Robert B. McDuff. Defense lawyers contend that budgets for already-overtaxed indigent defense systems are flat or have been cut. And in states without a public defender system, they argue, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which guarantees state-funded indigent criminal defense, is ineffective.

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