Georgia legislative proposals could gut public defender reforms

Just 12 years ago, Georgia’s indigent defense system was a national embarrassment. Defendants languished in jails for months at a time without ever seeing a lawyer. At many courthouses, assembly-line justice was the norm, with lawyers meeting their clients just a few minutes before entering guilty pleas.

The Legislature enacted sweeping reforms of the system in 2003, including a guarantee that defendants be entitled to the services of a public defender no more than three business days after being charged or jailed. It also required new defender offices to have divisions that specialized in the defense of children accused of crimes. Now, however, legislators are considering rolling back those reforms.

The proposals, attached to criminal justice reform legislation, could come up for a vote as early as Monday before a key state House committee.

“I’m shocked,” said former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher. “It could certainly be a severe blow and could undo all we did to provide an adequate system to poor people accused of crimes.”

While on the court, Fletcher was instrumental in the creation of the statewide public defender system, which began operating in 2005 because it took more than a year to secure funding, establish circuit offices, and hire defenders and investigators.

Atteeyah Hollie, a staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said the rollback proposals could gut important safeguards for children and adults accused of crimes. “This bill turns the clock back to a time when Georgia had no standards at all and aimed for the constitutional floor,” she said.

The proposals were introduced Thursday during a hearing before the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee and have the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal. “It’s an effort to bring the statute in line with how the (state’s public defender) agency actually operates,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman.

In a statement, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council called the legislation “a clean-up bill” that has aroused “unwarranted concerns.”

“It would neither remove the rights of any client nor mitigate our public defenders’ responsibilities to those clients,” the agency said. The bill recognizes the state’s local public defenders’ “hard work, commitment and ability to manage their offices under this now-proven leadership model.”

The proposals received a mixed reception from public defenders heading offices in various judicial circuits.

“I don’t think this proposed statute would change anything regarding how (circuit public defenders) actually operate,” said Sam Merritt, who heads the public defender office in Americus. He noted that a majority of the state’s circuit public defenders support the legislation.

Drew Powell, who oversees the Clarkesville office, opposes the elimination of the requirement that defendants be provided a lawyer in a timely manner. “This law was instrumental in gaining access to unrepresented defendants all over the state when this agency first started and (has) continued since that time,” he said.

Powell said Deal’s support to boost funding for the state system has been nothing short of remarkable and is greatly appreciated.

“That being said, I would like to see some strengthening of our standards rather than a weakening,” Powell said. “I am concerned to say the least.”

The proposal to eliminate minimum standards for the indigent representation was attached to House Bill 328. One provision of this criminal justice reform bill would give repeat, nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy prison terms the chance to seek parole after serving 12 years behind bars. This can only happen if the offenders have obtained the equivalent of a high school diploma and are considered a low risk to reoffend.

The public defender provisions attached to HB 328 were introduced a day before a Fulton County judge heard arguments in a lawsuit against a public defender office in South Georgia. Among the suit’s complaints: the Cordele office has failed to provide counsel to clients within three business days and has failed to establish a specialized juvenile division.

The suit was brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Washington firm Arnold & Porter on behalf of defendants charged in the Cordele circuit.

During Thursday’s legislative hearing, Southern Center lawyer Sarah Geraghty told lawmakers she believed the legislation to remove defender safeguards was introduced in response to the litigation. “We think this would be a tremendous step backwards,” she said.

The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said that is not his intention.

“In no way is this legislation being introduced to diminish the right of indigent defendants to have effective, competent attorneys who are in regular and frequent contact with their clients,” he said. But in light of the concerns expressed over the proposal, “my goal before going any further is to look into this and consider all the questions that have been raised.”