The right to counsel for children and adults in four counties in Georgia should soon be much closer to meeting minimum constitutional demands. The structural changes will come about as the result of a class action lawsuit challenging the effectiveness of a four-county public defense system in which defendants were routinely denied a fair day in court. The parties entered into a settlement agreement which was signed by the trial court on April 22, a month after the U.S. Department of Justice entered a statement of interest in the case.
The class action lawsuit, N.P. v. State, filed in January 2014 by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), alleged that kids and adults were regularly denied their right to counsel and instead treated to “assembly-line justice” in the Cordele Judicial Circuit (which includes Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox counties). According to SCHR, kids regularly appear in court without lawyers, and those who do receive representation are assigned lawyers who do not have time to talk with them before court. The suit claimed that Cordele Circuit Public Defender Office was structurally unable to provide meaningful representation due to chronic underfunding and understaffing.
Importantly, on March 13, 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit, not evaluating the merits of the case but providing the trial court with a framework to evaluate the juvenile justice claims. This is the third such Sixth Amendment class action lawsuit in which the DOJ has filed a statement of interest, the past two being the Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon (2013) and Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York (2014). The DOJ also entered into a memorandum of agreement with Shelby County, TN (2012) mandating improvements to the county’s juvenile justice system, and announced it was investigating the provision of indigent defense in St. Louis family courts (2013).
A month after the DOJ filed its statement of interest, on April 20, the defendants in the class action lawsuit – the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender and the four counties in the circuit – agreed to settle the matter with SCHR. The approved consent decree seeks to address a number of structural flaws. Specifically, it will: increase the size of the public defender’s office staff; require public defenders to meet with clients (a) within three days of their detainment to determine indigency, and (b) within three days of assignment to their case; and require defenders to receive training, including specific training for juvenile defenders. The consent decree requires public defenders to advise juvenile defendants seeking to waive their right to counsel what a lawyer could do for them, and also requires the public defender office to comply with the terms of the Georgia Indigent Defense Act of 2003, including by creating a specialized juvenile division.
While the structural improvements are limited to the four counties involved in the litigation, the nature of the improvements bode well for eventually making the right to counsel a reality in the state of Georgia and any other jurisdictions where the DOJ enforces the Sixth Amendment.