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Liberty and justice for some

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POSTED: September 27, 2007 5:03 a.m.
Imagine rotting in a prison cell, missing your child’s birthday, your anniversary, family gatherings. Now imagine you’re innocent. This is a fate that befalls far too many Georgians. We like to think we protect our citizenry from such a tragedy. We can never know just how many innocent Americans have fallen victim to the shortcomings of our criminal justice system. What we do know is that if people caught up in this system do not have good attorneys, the number of innocence cases will continue to grow.
A guiding principle of the Georgian’ s criminal justice system is that there is no greater harm than sending an innocent person to prison. In theory, we are willing to pay a high price to protect our citizens from wrongful incarceration. We are a people who deeply value our liberty and believe in justice. But do we value it for our poorest citizens.
This is an incredibly relevant question as the Georgia legislature ponders the state’s fledgling public defender system. Some are proposing drastic cutbacks, which would not only harm what improvements have been made, but break our promise to uphold these fundamental principles in our justice system.
Georgia has a troubling history of not affording its citizens the protections necessary to avoid the injustices our founding fathers sought to prevent. Georgia is home to injustices that ruined the lives of Clarence Harrison, Willie “Pete” Williams and Robert Clarke, innocent men who spent a combined total of over 65 years in prison. These tragedies force us to question whether we are adequately protecting our cherished liberty interests.
Injustice does not only come in the form of wrongful convictions. Take the case of Samuel Moore from Cordele. He was arrested in December 2001 and sat in jail for nearly a year without ever being appointed counsel. He was eventually appointed counsel in October 2002, well after all charges against him had been dismissed. Nevertheless, he was not released until January 2003 and, at the time of his release, he had still never seen his appointed counsel.
That these injustices are disproportionately heaped upon our poorest citizens is no coincidence. While Georgia is home to some of the finest private criminal defense attorneys, its history with providing representation to the poor is abhorrent.  For many years, the right to represent poor folks was given to lawyers who agreed to do it for the least amount of money and time. With real disincentives to adequately represent defendants, these lawyers’ livelihoods depended on their ability to quickly process cases.
Things began to change for this dysfunctional, crippled system in 2005 when the Georgia legislature created a state-wide, public defender system.
At last Georgia seemed committed to climbing from its place among those states most derelict in their duty to provide poor people accused of crimes with competent representation. Professional public defenders were appointed to oversee representation in counties across the state. A comprehensive training program was put in place to ensure that public defenders in Georgia were as well trained as any of their counterparts nationwide and many young lawyers signed on in order to be part of this noble enterprise.
While we are making progress, we still have a long way to go. Even with the new system, in parts of Georgia public defenders may have upwards of 50 cases assigned for trial in one week and attorneys are forced to carry caseloads two to three times as great as that recommended by the American Bar Association. Even today, in some counties a lawyer might be given a case that is scheduled for trial the following day.
Most Georgians still only have access to a public defender that is overworked, under-resourced, and as a result are unprepared. These public defenders may be well-trained, highly skilled, and care greatly about their clients, but nevertheless be rendered unable to adequately ensure that their clients don’t have the same fates as those of Harrison, Williams, Clarke or Moore.
Rather than carelessly stripping poor people in Georgia of the justice they deserve, we should recognize that we have advanced from an indigent defense system that was crippled to one that is merely broken. We shouldn’t stop our progress until we can say it is fixed.
The question Georgians should ask is not how much money should we continue to cut from the public defenders’ budgets but how many more poor citizens are we willing to risk to a failing, indigent defense system.

Rapping is a law professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center. He is also the former Training Director for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. This article was distributed by Georgia Forum.
 

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