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Some Fulton public defenders given 1,000 cases a year, group complains

Fulton County’s public defender’s office is “stretched so thin” that many poor defendants end up convicted of crimes, or spending time in jail, because they don’t have adequate representation, according to a letter from the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The letter, sent to county commissioners last week, also said public defenders aren’t given sufficient workspace or equipment to do their jobs, have excessive caseloads and are insufficiently funded.

Robb Pitts, the Fulton County chairman, said the letter took him by surprise and that he’s heard no complaints from employees in the public defender’s office. He said he plans to look into the concerns.

“These allegations are serious,” Pitts said. If any of them are true, he said, “it’s incumbent on us to correct them ASAP. Those defendants deserve representation, and based on that letter, they’re not receiving it.”

Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Atteeyah Hollie, the Southern Center senior staff attorney who drafted the letter, estimates that a public defender can handle as many as 1,000 cases a year, when the national standard is 400. The defense attorneys spend so much time in court that they aren’t able to investigate or file motions on their clients’ behalf, she said. The result is poor representation that often means more jail time.

“This can’t be what ‘justice for all’ looks like,” Hollie said. She said she doesn’t blame the attorneys because they are doing the best they can.

“We have to ensure that public defenders have the tools they need to practice law,” she said.

Fulton County contracts with the Georgia Public Defender Council to provide about 18 attorneys, for $2.2 million a year, Pitts said in a statement.

The Southern Center estimates caseloads because the county does not adequately track them, Hollie said.

Pitts said he has scheduled a Wednesday meeting with the public defender’s office to discuss some of the concerns. If more space, equipment and money are needed, they will be provided, he said.

The July 6 letter asks for a plan to resolve the department’s problems within 45 days. Hollie said she wants to avoid litigation regarding the program. In the past, the Southern Center for Human Rights has sued the county over other violations. Most notably, the group succeeded in forcing about $1 billion in repairs and renovations at the Fulton County jail, where locks did not work, raw sewage flooded cells and inmates slept on floors due to overcrowding. The jail was under federal oversight for more than a decade as it worked to make improvements.

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