MIssissippi Mis-step

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday the state isn't obligated to help counties pay the legal tabs of the poor charged with crimes.

The ruling came the same day the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the city of Gulfport, accused the Gulfport Municipal Court of routinely incarcerating poor people unable to pay their fines and violating their right to counsel.

As a result of these practices, the Harrison County Jail has become a modern day debtors' prison, said Miriam Gohara, assistant counsel for the fund. "We are very concerned that poor people with old fines for minor violations of the law, such as riding a bicycle without a light, are being jailed for their inability to pay, and worse yet they are not being provided with a lawyer before sentencing, in clear violation of the Constitution."

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon that right to counsel in criminal cases was necessary to achieve a fair system of justice. In his initial trial, Gideon represented himself because he could not afford an attorney. After his conviction was overturned, he was retried, and his appointed attorney discovered new witnesses and won an acquittal.

The Legislature passed an $11 million statewide program, which would have placed a public defender in each Circuit Court district, but lawmakers never funded the program, and it was eventually repealed. (Nearly half the states are funding such programs.)

A 2004 study by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund concluded full-time public defenders could help generate $5.3 million in tax revenue by getting suspects out of jail sooner and back to work.

Quitman County argued the Legislature's failure to fund a statewide public defender program violated the U.S. Constitution by not providing defendants representation as the high court ruled in the Gideon case.

So how does the PD system work in Mississippi?

Four of Mississippi's 82 counties — Hinds, Jackson, Washington and Forrest — have full-time public defender offices. The rest rely on lawyers working part time to pick up the slack, often for a flat fee far below the cost of providing services.

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