ATLANTA—Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice has released a report, “Mississippi’s No-Counsel Courts,” detailing the denial of counsel in state criminal courts in Mississippi in violation of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
The report, released in May, incorporates the observations of Georgia State Law students who participated in the center’s 2017 Alternative Spring Break trip to Jackson, Miss. Working with the Office of the State Public Defender, the students spent the week identifying trends in indigent defendants’ experience in state criminal courts. What they found was alarming.
“The center’s report and the students’ observations in Mississippi confirm what others have observed in courts across the South: the denial of counsel is a systemic, well-documented constitutional crisis in violation of Supreme Court precedent,” said Darcy Meals, center assistant director. “We hope the report will contribute to the growing body of evidence that these kinds of violations are rampant in low-level criminal courts, particularly in the South.”
The report said there is a tremendous gap between constitutional expectations and the reality of criminal practice in some of Mississippi’s low-level criminal courts, including:
- Defendants regularly deal directly with the prosecuting attorney without ever waiving their right to counsel.
- Public defenders are often absent from court.
- Entire criminal hearings are conducted in under a minute, often without defense counsel and based solely on the uncontested testimony of the arresting officer. In one court, the average time spent per criminal case was less than a minute and a half. The average time spent per case for all courts the students observed was less than three minutes.
- Only seven of Mississippi’s 82 counties have established public defender offices, and only five are full-time offices with support staff. All of those offices are dedicated to felony representation. There is no full-time public defender office handling misdemeanors.
“Though the Sixth Amendment guarantees indigent defendants the right to appointed counsel when incarceration will be imposed, in some courts in Mississippi, the promise of counsel goes unfulfilled,” Meals said. “Shedding light on these practices is vital to raising awareness of the need for change, and it is core to what the center seeks to do.”
The Center for Access to Justice was founded in 2016 to support those working to ensure meaningful access to the courts and equal treatment in the civil and criminal justice systems, with a focus on the South. The center’s Alternative Spring Break program provides Georgia State Law students the opportunity to spend a week immersed in a substantive area of law, while engaging in pro bono legal service.