Plan to Cut Public Defenders Could Leave Hundreds without Lawyers
(APN) ATLANTA — At least 1,850 indigent, or low-income, defendants in Fulton and DeKalb Counties could be without legal representation at the end of July if a plan to purge an Atlanta public defender’s office moves forward.
Mack Crawford, director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council (GPDSC), a statewide organization that provides oversight and financing for indigent defense, announced June 6, 2008, his intention to fire 16 attorneys, five investigators, and support staff from the Metro Conflict Defender office effective June 30.
Critics of the move argue representation by knowledgeable and competent attorneys with established relationships with the District Attorney will disappear, only to be replaced by lawyers who have little experience or interest in handling criminal cases.
“Mack Crawford has repeated the mantra ‘representation will not be compromised,’ as if saying it often enough would make it so,” Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), said in a press release obtained by Atlanta Progressive News.
“Many of the people accused have been in jail since their arrests and now will remain there even longer. Removal of their counsel is unfair and prejudicial to their cases. It is unconscionable,” Bright said.
The Metro Conflict Defender Office is part of the statewide public defender system and is one of four in Georgia that handles cases in which it would be a conflict of interest for the local public defender’s office to represent more than one client charged with the same crime. For example, if two defendants in the same robbery turn on each other after they are arrested, it is considered a conflict case.
Crawford made his decision without the knowledge or approval of the GPDSC or without a plan for replacing the lost staff.
During a special called meeting of the GPDSC on June 10, 2008, Crawford argued the move is necessary because the Georgia General Assembly reduced the funding for conflict cases this year and also to distribute funding for conflict cases more evenly to other counties.
State lawmakers appropriated $5.4 million for conflict defenders for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2008, down from $9 million appropriated for this year.
Crawford added during the June 10 meeting that he wants to reduce the budget by 4 percent this year and by 6 percent next year.
But critics of Crawford’s plan to cut back argue the cuts are not going to save money and will hurt the quality of representation because each attorney is a specialist in his or her practice area.
The GPDSC needs to do more to get state lawmakers to fund Georgia’s public defender system in full rather than try to work on a shoe-string budget, critics also say.
“It’s not Crawford’s or the GPDSC’s fault that the legislature and the counties have not provided the funding, but they should acknowledge reality instead of pretending they can get by on less than half of what was spent last year,” Bright said.
When the General Assembly created the GPDSC in 2003, lawmakers were to provide full funding, about $120 million, for indigent defense. But only a third of that money has been appropriated so far, leaving county commissions in each judicial circuit to make up the difference.
The availability of resources varies greatly from circuit to circuit depending on the financial situation of each county and the willingness of those counties to fund indigent defense.
Counties argue since the State created the public defender system, the funding burden should rest on the State.
On June 11, 2008, SCHR filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court against Crawford and the GPDSC on behalf of the clients and lawyers of the Metro Conflict Defender Office.
Plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction ordering reinstatement of the staff in order to maintain ongoing attorney-client relationships; protect the legal, professional, and ethical responsibilities of the attorneys with regard to their clients; and to ensure the orderly operation of the courts, according to the language of the lawsuit.
A hearing on the suit scheduled for June 23, 2008, before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland was canceled after the GPDSC ruled June 20 to delay the firings until the end of July.
But the matter is far from resolved. Sara Totonchi, public policy director for SCHR, told Atlanta Progressive News the lawsuit will continue and further action could be taken.
Attorneys at the Metro Conflict Defender Office remain in limbo. It is possible that many attorneys in the Metro office could take other jobs while others are unclear if they should continue to pick up new cases and resolve existing ones.
Proponents of the indigent defense system maintain there are only two ways to replace the Metro Conflict Defender Office: contract with lawyers to handle many cases for a certain amount of money or pay lawyers a small amount per case.
The GPDSC has already contracted with lawyers to handle 150 cases for $50,000 and it has been suggested the GPDSC pay $200 per plea and $600 per trial.
But the State created the GPDSC in the first place to eliminate practices like contracting defense cases to lawyers who frequently had little experience in criminal defense.
Under-funded, county-run programs that provided legal representation for indigent defendants in criminal cases faced numerous lawsuits alleging constitutional violations before the creation of the GPDSC.
As previously reported by APN, one of the reasons there are serious doubts in the Troy Davis death penalty case is that Davis appeared to have inadequate public representation.
“The only way that the constitutional right of counsel of the 1,800 people represented by the Conflict Defender can be protected is by continuing representation by the Conflict Defenders until an orderly transition over a sufficient period of time can be arranged,” Bright added. “Anything else is going to be chaos.”
Crawford’s latest decision to cut back is not the first time the public defender system has taken a hit. Because of budget woes, the GPDSC eliminated 41 full-time jobs constituting a 12 percent cut in the total workforce in May 2007.
It is going to be harder to attract and maintain competent public defenders in the future if cuts like these continue, critics argue.
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Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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