Georgia Public Defenders Say Lack of Parity Hinders Justice
Conference speaker calls state's indigent defense system a 'hodgepodge'
Justice for all depends upon investing as much in defending suspects as in prosecuting crimes, public defenders told a group of attorneys, students and professors gathered at the University of Georgia School of Law Friday.
"Until we have equal resources—including pay parity with prosecutors—we cannot achieve justice in this state," said Claudia Saari, circuit public defender for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit. She spoke on a panel of circuit public defenders at "Honoring Gideon's Promise, Rallying Gideon's Army," a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. The court unanimously held that the Sixth Amendment requires state governments to provide counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.
Unlike some others in Georgia, DeKalb County does have pay parity between prosecutors and public defenders, Saari said. Still, she noted the need for balance in other resources—investigators, labs and expert witnesses. But the speakers voiced skepticism about achieving parity in resources.
"Legislators know they are not going to be elected by advocating for the accused," said Leisa Johnson, circuit public defender in the Dougherty circuit.
The current debate in the state about how to use money seized in drug arrests needs to include public defenders, said Saari. She noted that forfeiture money is currently being used only by law enforcement and prosecutors. Governor Nathan Deal has appointed a task force to create guidelines for the use of forfeited funds.
"If there is a discussion about criminal justice in Georgia, there had better be a public defender at the table," Saari said, drawing applause from the packed auditorium.
Speakers at the conference were chosen to represent the state's geographic diversity, noted moderator Russell Gabriel, professor and director of the UGA Criminal Defense Clinic. They revealed widely varying resources devoted to indigent defense. Some counties, such as Fulton, DeKalb and Chatham, contribute the majority of the funds their local public defender operations use. Some counties contribute nothing, relying entirely on the Georgia Indigent Defense Council. Noting the 10th anniversary of the Georgia Indigent Defense Act, which created a statewide network of public defenders, some said the system has improved justice dramatically. "We are so much better off having the statewide system," Saari said.
Johnson, who started Albany's first public defender office in 2004, said she had seen the biggest success with appeals. The private attorneys representing indigent defendants under contracts in the past simply were not filing appeals, she said. They would file a notice of appeal and then drop the case. Her office went through boxes of appeals never filed and caught up. As a result, she said, "We had so many cases overturned."
The lasting value of the appellate work, she said, is that it helps ensure fairness in future trials when judges and prosecutors know the appeal work will be done. Drawing applause, Johnson said, "I'm not looking for reversals. I just want to follow the law, so we try a case one time."
Court monitoring still shows poor people being under-represented and mistreated in some counties, said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. She mentioned a defendant who languished in jail for 13 months on a loitering arrest with no arraignment. She noted others who were introduced to their lawyers for a five-minute conversation at 9:30 a.m. and by noon were convicted felons. Court monitors in one county thought indigent defendants had no lawyer, until they realized the lawyer was sitting at a table behind them, sending them up alone to stand before the judge.