Target: Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice William L. Waller
Goal: Appoint public defenders to prisoners by the time of their bail hearing to ensure they are properly represented
In Mississippi, an estimated 50 prisoners have been left in a Scott County jail for extended periods of time without access to a lawyer and without indictment, according to a class action complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. By law, prisoners are entitled to a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one, and they must be indicted and they have the right to a speedy trial. In Mississippi, however, there is no set amount of time in which prisoners must be indicted, the group handing down indictments meets only three times a year and the language in the law determining when defendants should have access to a lawyer is vague enough to leave them unrepresented during even their bail hearing. Such gross inefficiencies leave many illegally detained.
Without being appointed a lawyer, prisoners often have no way to push the courts to indict them or recognize their presence at all. Joshua Bassett was arrested in January of 2014 for grand larceny and meth possession and has spent eight months in jail, has not been indicted and has not seen an attorney, though he is entitled one. Octavious Burks has been in jail since November of 2013 for possession of paraphernalia, weapons possession, disorderly conduct and attempted armed robbery. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2008 says that defendants are entitled to representation at every “critical stage.” Interpretations of critical stages vary widely enough that Burks went to his own bail hearing without representation, his bail was set at $30,000 and 10 months later, Burks has still not seen a lawyer.
Since the district attorney is not given a set amount of time during which she must present her case against the defendant, she is free to continue her investigation while the prisoner languishes in jail with no defender to investigate on his behalf. Mississippi state public defender Leslie Lee speculates that these long periods without appointed representation may be an attempt at penny pinching. The later a defender is appointed, the less time they are paid for. This practice is in direct violation of prisoners’ rights, leaving them unrepresented and often forgotten.
Demand that all defendants who cannot afford a lawyer be appointed a public defender no later than the time of their bail hearing in keeping with their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
Dear Chief Justice Waller,
Under the Sixth Amendment, everyone has the right to a speedy trial, but many in Scott County, Mississippi have been denied that right. By failing to appoint public defenders to those in need of representation by the time of the defendant’s bail hearing, the courts are putting prisoners at an unfair disadvantage. As Professor Matt Steffey at the Mississippi College School of Law points out, “This is usually a problem when a defendant has no one to push their case to the attention of a judge.” Steffey also says, “Clients without lawyers find their cases move slower, they are less likely to get bail or bail is higher.”
I urge you to require a public defender to be appointed no later than the time of the defendant’s bail hearing to ensure that prisoners receive the representation they deserve under the law.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: J.-H. Janßen via Wikimedia Commons