Once again, Mississippi's sad excuse for a criminal justice system looks more like something from a Third World country than the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held at the Scott County Jail in Mississippi. The federal class action suit charges that hundreds of people at the jail have been indefinitely detained and indefinitely denied counsel without formal criminal charges ever being filed. According to the New York Times,
It is hard to figure out what all this jail time has actually been about. While the arrests that led to these jail stays have been on serious felony charges, Octavious Burks, 37, a poultry plant worker, has not been convicted of or even faced trial on any of the charges. For nearly all of his time in jail, including his current 10-month stay, Mr. Burks has not even had access to a lawyer.
The suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center, says that when Mr. Burks and others are arrested, steep and "arbitrary" bail amounts are set, with no consideration of a person's ability to pay.
If a defendant applies for indigent defense, as Mr. Burks did on the day of his arrest in November, the senior circuit judge, Marcus D. Gordon, generally approves the request. But it is the judge's policy not to appoint a public defense lawyer until a person is indicted. And there is no state law setting a time limit on detention before an indictment.
So Mr. Burks sits in jail and waits, with no lawyer and no end in sight.
Judge Gordon then said that he did not have the jurisdiction to appoint a public defender at all until a defendant was indicted in his courtroom, even if someone were to request a preliminary hearing or a bail hearing. In those cases, the judge said, a defendant "can represent himself, or he can employ an attorney."
This came as a surprise to those who are familiar with the courts in Scott County and in Mississippi generally. "A judge has the power to appoint a lawyer anytime," said Robert B. McDuff, a criminal defense lawyer in the state. But he said he was not surprised by the allegations in the lawsuit.
The public defender system in the state is a patchwork, varying from county to county. Most public defenders work part-time or on contract. Mississippi and six other states do not contribute any money for indigent defense for trial-level, noncapital cases. Those costs are borne entirely by local governments, usually from court fines and fees.
In 2011, the legislature created the Office of State Public Defender and directed it to study the landscape and possibly lay the groundwork for a statewide system. The office, however, does not have any oversight over public defenders in counties across the state.
"We don't know a lot of what's going on in some of these counties," said Leslie Lee, the state public defender. What appears to be going on Scott County, she said, is unconstitutional.
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