Several weeks ago, the Innocence Blog covered a story about an American Bar Association report which revealed that in Nashville defendants accused of misdemeanors are not given access to legal representation. As a result, the majority of those defendants plead guilty without ever having been advised of their constitutional rights. Yesterday a story in the New York Times described a similar dismal situation in South Carolina, where people are being sent to jail and prison without ever seeing an attorney.
In the United States, any person facing time behind bars is entitled to legal representation by the Sixth Amendment. According to the several sources highlighted by the New York Times, more and more often, people—especially those who are poor—charged with misdemeanors are not being provided with attorneys.
In a case highlighted by the Times, a homeless South Carolina man named Larry Marsh has been either arrested or cited by the police more than 270 times for trespassing. He’s spent time in jail and prison as a result but never has he been provided with a lawyer. And sadly, Marsh, who lives with mental illness, and no family nor friends to help him, lives in a perpetual cycle of being arrested and then placed in jail because he can’t afford the cost of the $250 fines.
Of course, Marsh is but one example of someone being swooped up by a highly dysfunctional system that can disregard the legal rights and needs of the poor. According to the Times, 139 of South Carolina’s 212 municipal courts do not have public defenders. Tess Borden, a lawyer with the ACLU who spoke to the Times, said that “municipalities that choose to establish their own courts have a duty to fund public defense . . . .Yet the majority of cities and towns flout this obligation, prosecuting poor people without spending a dime on defense. The result is a grossly unconstitutional system in which lawyers are luxuries available only to those who can afford them.”
This amounts to a tragedy for people towns like Sumter, South Carolina—where Marsh lives—where, states the Times, “almost one in five people . . . live below the poverty line, and criminal defendants are generally overwhelmingly poor.”
The ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project has reportedly filed a class-action lawsuit against a number of South Carolina cities that do not provide defendants with attorneys. “They hope for a ruling that sets a statewide precedent that all jurisdictions must provide lawyers.”
Read the Times story here.