Lawmakers — decide on public defense overhaul

Published 8:36 pm Monday, November 19, 2018

Mississippi’s Public Defender Task Force is gone. How the Legislature reacts next year to the task force’s final report will determine whether it’s forgotten.

The group conducted an extensive study of how Mississippi provides lawyers to criminal defendants who can’t afford their own, detailing a rickety county-by-county system where low pay may incentivize public defenders in many counties to skimp on work, at the same time that defenders may fear fighting hard for their clients because that might upset judges who appoint them.

The Legislature last year didn’t extend the life of the group, meaning it dissolved on June 30. But before the task force passed out of existence after three years of work, it issued a report proposing a major overhaul of the current piecemeal system of public defense.

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Right now, each county makes its own decisions about public defenders. Some, like Hinds, Washington and Pearl River, have a full-time public defender’s office. Others hire one or more lawyers on contract, usually on a part-time basis. Yet others still appoint lawyers for individual cases. Statewide, part-time contract lawyers dominate. Because they get a set amount no matter how much time they spend on an individual case, contract lawyers have incentives to spend as little time as possible on indigent cases to maximize income from private clients.

A report by the Sixth Amendment Center also found that public defenders in many of the 10 counties it examined were carrying too many cases, compared to national standards. The center argues for improved public defense nationwide.

Those who want changes in the system say lawmakers and citizens should care, because the state is shirking its duty to provide lawyers to those facing jail time. They warn that other counties could be sued for the failure, in the same way that Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties were. Advocates also say that better public defenders could speed cases toward a conclusion, meaning unrepresented people who can’t pay bail wouldn’t sit in jail for months or even years. That would cut jail costs for county taxpayers.

Under the draft legislation presented by the task force, a nine-member Public Defender Oversight Council would be created. The council, in turn, would set standards for public defender caseloads and other matters and take over public defender training. The state public defender would still be appointed by the governor, but would report to the council, and would be responsible for naming a district public defender in each judicial circuit based on recommendations from a local committee. Those district defenders, in turn, could hire assistants, who would be funded by counties.

The idea is to create a public defender office that would parallel the district attorney’s office in each of the state’s 22 circuits. The proposed law would set the salary for the district defender at 90 percent of that earned by the district attorney.

This would, of course, cost more money. The task force estimates that counties statewide are already collectively paying about $15 million for indigent defense. The Legislature would have to come up with at least $4 million more to pay for the overhaul.

“You’re not going to be able to fix the problems we identified by somehow having it cost less than what it’s currently costing,” David Carroll, executive director of Sixth Amendment Center, told the task force in April.

Forecasts show lawmakers will have a little money to spend in the coming session, although competition in an election year will be sharp. In a state with many needs, paying to guarantee that poor people get fair trials could be easy to forget.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.