State agrees to bolster public defender system

The state public defender agency has agreed to hire new lawyers to ensure that inmates seeking to appeal their convictions have qualified counsel to represent them, according to a settlement reached this week.

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council's board voted unanimously Friday to approve a legal agreement that calls for the agency to hire up to seven full-time appellate lawyers and monitor the caseloads of the lawyers to make sure they don't get out of hand. The agency now has two full-time lawyers and one part-time lawyer handling appeals.

The settlement was reached on the eve of a trial on the inmates' claims before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, who has overseen the case since a lawsuit was filed two years ago.

The agency also agreed to increase the pay for private attorneys who handle appeals on a contract basis. During a previous hearing, Baxter had expressed disbelief that prior contracts had lawyers working for less than $10 an hour. The defender agency had resorted to such contracts because its budget to handle appeals had been by cut from $336,000 to $160,000.

"We believe this is an important and significant step towards making Georgia's indigent defense system capable of providing our clients with the representation to which they are entitled," said Lauren Sudeall Lucas of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

Travis Sakrison, executive director of the public defender council, said, “In its current form, we believe that the proposed settlement is a reasonable resolution to this issue for the clients [the defender council] represents and the state of Georgia.” The terms of the agreement mirror much of what the council "has already implemented and aligns with our future plans."

Sakrison declined to specify how much the new lawyers will cost the agency, saying Baxter had yet to approve the settlement.

The class-action lawsuit filed in 2009 said almost 200 people convicted of crimes had not been appointed counsel to represent them on appeal. Some inmates had been waiting more than three years for a lawyer to represent them and many more had been waiting at least one year, the lawsuit said.

In early 2010, Baxter, calling the right to counsel "unqualified and unconditional," ordered the defender agency to provide lawyers to the inmates. As of this week, there was no backlog of cases in which an inmate had asked for a lawyer and not been provided one.

But Lucas said there were concerns over the quality of representation being provided, with too many lawyers having too many cases and not enough time to spend on them. Moreover, she said, the agency had no policies in place to monitor the lawyers' performance.

Michael Caplan, another lawyer representing the inmates, said a primary goal of the 2003 indigent defense act, which established the statewide system, was the hiring and retention of full-time and trained public defenders.

"What this settlement does is bring us back to where we wanted to go in 2003," he said.

The parties will now ask Baxter to approve the settlement.

In recent years, the state's public defender system has struggled to meet its obligations because of budget shortfalls. The Legislature established a revenue stream to fund the system through increased court fines and fees, but in past years lawmakers diverted millions of dollars in collections to other programs. The council's budget for the current fiscal year is $39 million, about $3 million less than what was collected last year in court fines and fees.

House Bill 648, sponsored by Republican and Democratic leaders, would have a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot to let voters decide whether the fine and fee collections can be solely dedicated to the indigent defense system. That legislation is pending.