Monday, February 26, 2024

In some Mississippi counties criminal defendants are on their own

The right to an attorney is fundamental to the U.S. justice system. Yet, in a small Mississippi court off the interstate between Jackson and Memphis, that right is tenuous, reported ProPublica and The Marshall Project.

The two judges in Yalobusha County Justice Court appointed lawyers for just 20% of the five dozen felony defendants who came before them in 2022, according to a review of court records; nationally, experts estimate that lawyers are appointed to at least 80% of felony defendants at some point in the legal process because they’re deemed poor. In this court, the way these two judges decide who gets a court-appointed attorney appears to violate state rules meant to protect defendants’ rights. A few defendants have even been forced to represent themselves in key hearings.

This article was produced in partnership with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, formerly a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, and ProPublica.

Despite the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that everyone gets a lawyer even if they’re too poor to pay for one, most felony defendants in this court went without any representation at all before their cases were forwarded to a grand jury, according to a review of one full year of court files by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica. (Read more about how we analyzed the court’s appointment rate in our methodology.)

“That is a huge problem,” said AndrĂ© de Gruy, who leads a state office that handles death penalty cases and felony appeals but has no power over local public defense. “I believe almost every one of those people would like a lawyer and is unable to afford one.”

For decades, civil rights advocates and legal reformers have complained that Mississippi is among the worst states in the country in providing attorneys for poor criminal defendants. It’s one of a handful of states where public defense is managed and funded almost entirely by local governments, and the way they do so varies greatly from county to county. Defendants in some places see appointed lawyers quickly and remain represented thereafter; elsewhere, sometimes right over the county line, defendants can wait months just to see a lawyer or can go long periods without having one at all.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, which oversees how state courts operate, has issued several rules in recent years that were intended to drive improvements. But it is up to locally elected judges to carry out those mandates, and there’s no oversight to make sure they’re doing it right.

Much like Mississippi, Texas places primary responsibility for public defense on counties. A state commission in Texas investigates the counties with low appointment rates; a felony appointment rate below 50% would raise serious questions about a county’s compliance with state law, according to current and former officials there. In Mississippi, state officials don’t even know how often judges appoint attorneys.

To read more CLICK HERE


No comments:

Post a Comment