19 Oct 2015

Mississippi judge: 'People charged with crimes, they are criminals'

Mississippi is one of just seven states in the U.S. that doesn’t provide funding to cover the costs of public defenseacross its 82 counties. Many indigent defendants throughout the state rely instead on private attorneys paid a flat-fee by the counties to take cases when assigned to them by local courts.
The Mississippi Supreme Court, back in 1995, declared that the quality of representation for poor defendants "goes to the very heart of how we as a civilized society assure equal justice to rich and poor alike." Unfortunately, 20 years later, some counties in Mississippi are spending less than $2 per capita on indigent defense. To make matters worse for poor defendants, there is no state oversight of this patchwork system. Circuit court judges are the highest legal officers in the counties, and the only check on their judgement is the ballot box.
At least one of these judges, Marcus D. Gordon, has admitted to not assigning public defenders until after indictment—when formal charges are filed against a defendant. Gordon has claimed the policy is necessary because of scarce resources. But in a state that sets no time-limit on how long someone can be held in jail before indictment, the result is that poor defendants who can’t afford bail routinely end up in jail for months without ever speaking to a lawyer.
Brandon Buskey of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called the resulting system a “perfect storm of constitutional violations.” In 2014, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Judge Gordon and Scott County, where he presides, on behalf of former inmates for excessive pretrial detention and denial of counsel.
Fault Lines correspondent Anjali Kamat spoke to Judge Gordon about the pattern of pretrial detention in his jurisdiction and asked him to respond to allegations that his policies are violating inmates’ constitutional rights. An edited version of the conversation follows:

As far as I understand, Mississippi law says the right to counsel takes effect as soon as the warrant is issued for an arrest, is that right?
It’s right.
So as soon as someone is arrested, they should be entitled to a lawyer.
Right.
A number of recent studies have shown that having state public defenders can be more cost effective and provide better representation for defendants. So I’m curious why you wouldn’t petition for a state system.
Because I don’t have the authority. That’s above me. I have a responsibility of civil and criminal cases all over four counties. Lady, I work from Monday to Friday night.

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