In a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Scott County, the ACLU asked for reform on the counties practice of detaining people who can’t afford an attorney for as long as a year without appointing counsel or actually charging them with a crime.
The case Burks v. Scott County, Mississippi settled with an agreement issued by United States District Judge Henry T. Wingate. The agreement stated that Scott, Neshoba, Newton, and Leake Counties will end the current practice by appointing public defenders at arrest.
The ACLU believes that providing legal representation earlier in the process will ensure that arrestees have attorneys at their first bail hearings to argue for lower bail amounts and release until trial.
“In these four counties, thousands have had weeks, months, and even years of their lives stolen from them because they could not afford an attorney or purchase their freedom,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “This settlement closes those trap doors for the poor.”
A chief public defender will be appointed in all these counties meaning individual public defense attorneys will no longer serve at the whim of judges, instead the chief public defender will supervise.
“Mississippi has been locking up poor folks without a lawyer and without the ability to make bail for as long as anyone can remember. Desperate and hopeless, many people plead guilty to offenses they didn’t commit just to get back to their families,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “We should be ashamed of ourselves. My hope is that other Mississippi counties also will decide to abide by the Constitution and implement similar changes.”