News 03.20.18

Report: Indigent Defense Services in Mississippi Need Improvement

The Mississippi Public Defender Task Force, the Six Amendment Center and the Defender Initiative at the Seattle University School of Law released a 132 page report yesterday that examines the indigent defense services at the adult felony trial level in Mississippi. The Task Force, which commenced its study in 2015, selected and evaluated 10 counties they felt were representative of Mississippi’s statewide population. Through its research, the Task Force identifies the key issues within the state’s indigent defense system and concludes that the state does not have a system to ensure that indigent defendants are provided with adequate counsel.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment,” writes Mississippi Today, “states are responsible for overseeing defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. In Mississippi, the state only directly assesses the qualification of an indigent defendant’s counsel in death eligible cases.”

The study also reveals that indigent defendants charged with felonies are refused the right to counsel between arrest and arraignment. This period between arrest and arraignment ranges between a few months to, occasionally, over one year.

“I feel very strongly that Mississippi would benefit in multiple ways from a well-organized and adequately funded state defender system so we wouldn’t have great disparity in the quality of legal representation in different  parts of the state,” the state Supreme Court Presiding Justice and chairman of the Public Defender Task Force James W. Kitchens told Mississippi Today.

“The majority of defendants in circuit courts in Mississippi are indigent. They can’t afford a lawyer who is as good, experienced and well trained as the district attorney and his or her assistants,” he added.

The report concludes by recommending legislation that would allow the state to improve its indigent defense services, thereby providing effective counsel to individuals in need.

State public defender and member of the Task Force, André de Gruy, told Mississippi Today, “Utilizing the recommendations in this report, the Office of State Public Defender and the Public Defender Task Force will be able to provide the Legislature with a plan to correct the deficiencies in the current splintered system while retaining those aspects that are working well. We understand that this plan will need to be cost effective but we strongly believe that constitutionally mandated indigent defense spending should be a ‘Justice Reinvestment’ priority.”

Read the full report here.

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