Public Defenders Take a Hit in GA

Innocent people are convicted in Georgia, just like everywhere else. The problem will only grow worse now that Georgia, in an effort to trim the state budget, plans to lay off 17 public defenders in Fulton County.

On Monday, the county’s chief judge, Doris L. Downs, called the layoffs “irresponsible.”

For every public defender laid off, the same fate should befall a prosecutor. Why should those who are committed to defending the rights of the accused carry the weight of the state's failure to generate the tax revenues needed to make the criminal justice system operate fairly? [more ...]

Georgia has a long history of treating public defenders as an afterthought, and not a very important one, in its criminal justice system.

In 2003, the indigent defense system in Georgia, a piecemeal system of county programs that had been ranked among the worst in the United States, was overhauled to provide statewide oversight and financing. The changes were intended to eliminate practices like contracting defense cases to lawyers who often had little experience or interest in criminal defense.

Georgia's "reform" was short-lived. A plan to keep the system in operation is destined to result in more convictions of the innocent.

Vernon S. Pitts, the public defender for Fulton County, said council officials had considered offering the county $800,000, or $400 a case, to pay private lawyers to handle its conflict cases. It is not clear whether that is enough money.

Actually, it's very clear that $400 per case isn't enough money. It isn't even enough to pay for the time needed to read the police reports in a typical felony prosecution. No lawyer should play Georgia's game by agreeing to work for $400. If prosecutions of the indigent grind to a halt in Fulton County, as they should, maybe Georgia's legislature will decide that protecting the innocent is at least as worthy of budgetary consideration as the need to fund 205 new state troopers and three new trooper schools (pdf). Is catching speeders really as important as keeping innocent people out of prison?

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    Just from a pragmatic POV (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by jccamp on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 12:49:49 PM EST
    laying off PD's is terribly counter-productive. Cases will pile up, encouraging poorly considered plea bargains, creating probation and parole violations galore, and so on. Plus there's the old "Justice delayed is justice denied" saw.

    At first blush, it may seem like we're penalizing criminal defendants with cuts like these, but in reality, the system suffers, and presumably, society in general.

    Stupid plan.

    Even cops will (begrudgingly) admit that effective defense counsel make the courts work best.

    I really (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Claw on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 01:56:20 PM EST
    Can't comment on this other than to point out that everything you've said is right on the money.
    Thank you for this post.  It's a disaster down here.

    build more jails of course. (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by cpinva on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 03:20:17 PM EST
    I wonder what they will do
    when they see what happens to their jails?

    this is always popular in the south. it's far easier to get a bond passed to build jails than  schools in the states of the old confederacy. many a local and state politician (think george allen jr.) made his bones in the south by promising to lock 'em up and throw away the key.

    i'd bet money that if they put this to a popular vote, it would pass easily. the legislature is reflective of the GA population as a whole, as it is elsewhere in the south.

    Public Defenders (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by wobbly on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 04:20:50 PM EST
    My brother's a public defender in North Carolina, and will probably never be laid off.  When the state wants to save money, it just defers paying him for a month, or another month...in the meantime, he just juggles his credit cards.

    He did his undergraduate work at Yale, went to Harvard Law...and is deeper in debt than I am, who quit college after Kent State, and has worked mostly in manufacturing ever since.

    He's an Obama guy and I'm a Hillary girl, but we still speak to each other...and this public defender thing is a HUGE problem.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

    $400/case? (4.00 / 1) (#3)
    by indy in sc on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 01:11:56 PM EST
    That is completely ridiculous.  I fear that some attorneys may take that as a way to have a "side gig."  In order to make money at it, they would take on a large volume of these cases and spend a half-hour or less on each.  Thanks for bringing this to our attention.  This needs to be watched.  

    $1.6B surplus (4.00 / 1) (#8)
    by AlladinsLamp on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 04:31:49 PM EST
    My state has a $1.6B surplus "rainy day" fund.

    Local county trooper HQ, assignments, and schools
    are pork politics.

    Some days I'm just so proud to be a Cracker./snark (none / 0) (#1)
    by halstoon on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 12:37:00 PM EST

    I wonder what they will do (none / 0) (#5)
    by JSN on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 02:37:34 PM EST
    when they see what happens to their jails?

    So glad (none / 0) (#9)
    by shoulin4 on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 07:56:22 PM EST
    I moved.

    . . . (::singing::) Georgia, Georgiaaaa . . .

    I've always thought.... (none / 0) (#10)
    by kdog on Wed Jun 11, 2008 at 08:16:15 AM EST
    that the public defender's office should have an equal budget to the DA's office...anything less is not justice.