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Indigent defendants in NE Ga. win state’s promise of an attorney


Jailhouses are rockin‘ in northeast Georgia, as hundreds of defendants awaiting trial are once again guaranteed an attorney if they cannot afford one.

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council this week settled a lawsuit alleging it had abandoned poor defendants in the five-county Northern Judicial Circuit on the South Carolina border.

The council is responsible for providing an attorney for anyone who is accused of a crime and can prove indigence. Private attorneys are hired in so-called “conflict cases” to avoid the conflicts of interest inherent if one attorney were to represent multiple defendants charged with the same crime.

In the Northern Circuit, about 300 defendants were left without lawyers last year when the council did not renew the contracts of conflict attorneys as a cost-cutting measure.

The council agreed to provide poor defendants in the Northern Judicial Circuit with an attorney within one day of being notified that one is needed, according to a consent order signed Thursday by Superior Court Judge J. David Roper. The council also agreed to limit the workloads of lawyers who are assigned conflict cases.

In a separate analysis, also released Thursday, Roper concluded Georgia’s indigent-defense system is “fraught with a lack of accountability”:

The Georgia indigent defense system is broken. It is a mega-bureaucracy adrift with no rudder. No business, nonprofit organization or governmental agency could survive under the present statutory scheme, While the current recession has caused acute funding issues for indigent defense, increased funding is no panacea. The real issues are organization, efficiency and accountability.

The settlement came in a class-action suit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights in April 2009. The center praised the decision today in a news release.

The Northern Circuit comprises Elbert, Franklin, Hart, Madison and Oglethorpe counties.





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