Settlement reached in South Georgia public defender lawsuit

A settlement has been reached in a long-running and hotly disputed lawsuit that alleged a South Georgia public defender office failed to provide adequate legal representation of adults and juveniles.

The agreement was reached just a few weeks after the U.S. Justice Department stepped into the litigation, filing court papers to express concern about the lack of legal representation for juveniles in the Cordele Judicial Circuit.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter, said children in the four-county circuit often went unrepresented in Juvenile Court. It also alleged that, because of chronic under-funding and under-staffing, the Cordele office provided “assembly-line justice” to adults accused of crimes.

A consent decree, signed Monday by parties in the litigation, must still be approved by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Todd Markle. If he signs off on it, terms of the agreement go into effect on July 1.

“It is a significant step toward children and adults being treated as individuals and receiving the representation that is required by the Constitution for fair and just outcomes,” said Stephen Bright, the Southern Center’s senior counsel.

Under terms of the decree, the number of assistant public defenders in the Cordele office would double from two to four. Instead of having one investigator, it would now have two. Its defenders also would be required to meet clients in a timely manner.

The Cordele office would also be required to maintain a juvenile division, with at least one full-time public defender who would be responsible for developing and maintaining a knowledge about issues unique to the representation of children.

One of the new public defenders and the new investigator are to be funded by the four counties — Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox — that make up the Cordele circuit. The other new defender will be funded by the state public defender system, the agreement says.

Bryan Tyson, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said his office is happy to renew its partnership with the Cordele circuit. “This agreement provides additional personnel in the Circuit Public Defender’s Office, further benefiting indigent defendants,” he said.

No one should have to face criminal prosecution alone, Arnold & Porter attorney Arthur Luk said. “With this settlement, adults and children in Cordele should begin to receive the effective assistance of counsel to which they are entitled.”