When the Poor Go to Court
Across the nation, many indigents wind up being sentenced to jail time without ever seeing a lawyer
Shortfalls in some places are acute. In Alabama, pay cuts have caused lawyers representing indigent death penalty clients to flee the system. In New Mexico, a lack of funds to hire lawyers for indigent defendants caused the court of appeals there to place an ad for lawyers willing to work free.
While several states have enacted some reforms in recent years, most have been dragged kicking and screaming to the table, often on the heels of civil rights lawsuits, court orders, or striking examples of injustice made public. And while such reforms are welcome, critics say the jury is still out on how well they are implemented. In Georgia, for instance, new public defenders are required to contact their clients within 72 hours of their arrest, but there is no requirement that they do much else until a defendant has his day in court. In one case, a public defender representing a severely mentally ill woman facing a parole violation had contacted his client only once after her arrest and was not scheduled to see her again until a bond hearing set for nearly two months later. John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison and Jail Project, a watchdog group active in southern Georgia, says the public defender didn't even meet with the woman personally on the first occasion; he sent her a form letter. Cole Vodicka left several messages for the lawyer, saying that he knew the woman from his church and that he could help get in touch with character witnesses with knowledge of her troubles and her mental illness. The lawyer failed to call him back, Cole Vodicka says. The woman's case is pending. Asked about the case, Samuel Merritt, the head of the public defender's office in that circuit, said his office should have fought more aggressively to schedule the woman's bond hearing for an earlier date, but he says the new system is generally working very well.
At least Georgia is trying. In many cities and states, advocates say, it appears officials have just ignored the law. The New York Civil Liberties Union has threatened to file suit against New York State. While New York City, which has a well-funded legal-aid office, is in many ways a model for other locales, the rural counties upstate are another story. In Schuyler County, lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's legal defense fund say an investigation they conducted revealed a system where indigent defendants routinely sat in jail for weeks or months without seeing a lawyer. Often they went through the entire court process, from arrest, to arraignment, on through bail hearings and even through plea bargains, without ever consulting an attorney. One public defender, they say, deliberately kept his phone off the hook.
Then there's Gulfport, the second largest city in Mississippi, which, up until Hurricane Katrina hit, was beating the pavement looking for those who owed fines for things like public profanity--at $222 a pop. The result of Gulfport's fine-reclamation project was that while it collected modest sums of money, it also packed the county jail with hundreds of people who couldn't pay. The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gulfport last July. Attorney Sarah Geraghty says that before bringing the case against the city, she witnessed hundreds of court adjudications involving Gulfport's poor in which no defense attorney was present or even offered. Many defendants, Geraghty said, were obviously indigent, mentally ill, or physically disabled, like Hubert Lindsey; some had been jailed for fines they had already paid. One mentally ill woman attempted suicide by jumping from an elevated cell in the county jail after she was picked up for having failed to pay several city fines; the lawsuit alleges that police then grabbed her again on the same charge a few months later, causing her to miss the surgery scheduled to fix the broken bones in her feet.
The city says it is still reviewing the lawsuit, but there is talk of a settlement. And Geraghty, who recently sat in on the court's proceedings again, says judges are now advising indigent defendants of their rights. But it never should have taken a lawsuit, adds Geraghty, noting that the problem with the city's actions was clear: "It's illegal. Period."