The Butcher Is Alive and Well In the Georgia Legislature

This story opens with a Georgia Representative, plotting with fellow legislators on how to reform the state’s public defender system.

Rep. Dick the Butcher “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

Within the halls of our state legislator a hideous plot has been put into motion. HB 328 is a new bill that perfectly articulates institutionalized discrimination. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, HB 328 started as a bill that allowed for the parole of drug recidivists who were originally sentenced to life without parole. With a quick change of hand, state representatives added some extra language that could drastically alter Georgia’s Public Defender System. The Southern Center listed the changes in the link below, but I would like to break down some of them piece by piece so we can see how devastating this really is. As you read through this, keep in mind public defenders defend a bulk of the criminal cases in many counties. HB 328 proposes the following changes:

  • Eliminates O.C.G.A. 17-12-23(b) meaning there is no longer a requirement that public defenders meet with arrested defendants within 3 days. So if a defender waits one month, two months, or more then no cares. The bulk of any criminal investigation usually occurs in the first month or two. How can an attorney investigate a case when he or she hasn’t even met their client? This would also have a huge effect on indigent defendants getting fair and reasonable bonds to get out jail.
  • Eliminates O.C.G.A. 17-12-23(c) which means Circuit Public Defenders would no longer be required to have a juvenile division! Juvenile courts are specialized courts with their own statues and procedures. Very few private defense attorneys specialize in juvenile law because there’s no money in it. Think about it, the children that get in trouble usually come from poor families, have no established social network, and little education. Juvenile court is also a closed court. Proceedings are sealed, so you will never know the challenges juvenile defenders face and overcome everyday. Taking away juvenile defenders means children go through the criminal justice system without a lawyer or worse an incompetent one. Juvenile court is supposed to be a legal intervention in a troubled child’s life. All circumstances are supposed to be considered to get the child back on track. How can that happen if the child has no voice?
  • Eliminates O.C.G.A. 17-12-5(c)(2) which gives the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council director the ability to “enforce” or “require compliance with” rules, procedures, minimum standards, etc. What does that mean? It means Public Defender Circuits can make up their own rules! It means there will be no consistency of justice in the circuits. Think of it this way, Where would you rather eat? A restaurant that has a health score of 89%, or a restaurant that is not subject to health inspection? This elimination has a strong connection to the next change.
  • Eliminates O.C.G.A. 17-12-24(c) which requires Chief Public Defenders to keep certain caseload records and statistics. Getting rid of this code section seems as if it does the least harm in comparison to the other proposed changes, but why would the legislature care about caseloads and statistics? And here dear friends is where we see the legislature’s true intent. Statistics are extremely important for helping to manage scarce resources effectively in a state wide system. The actual numbers are also some of the most damning evidence of inequality and injustice in indigent communities. What do social advocates quote to make their points? Raw data. Get rid of the data and you hide the smoking gun of institutional discrimination against the poor.
  • Eliminates O.C.G.A. 17-12-80(c) the current statutory requirement that a governing authority shall tell the public defender “within one business day of [a criminal defendant’s] application for [indigent defense] services” . This provision is another ice berg that hides its true form under the surface. Many people that apply for a public defender don’t meet the financial qualifications and are told to hire a private attorney. This rule means the process happens fairly quickly. A defendant is told he doesn’t qualify and starts making calls to raise money for his private attorney. Most people that apply don’t understand the financial guidelines and cut off points. I have seen this process myself and many people who don’t qualify are surprised they don’t meet the requirements. If you take away time requirements a defendant may assume he or she has council just because they filed an application. In actuality they fly through the criminal justice system unrepresented. Mix this elimination with the one requiring a public defender to see a defendant within a certain time period and you get some horrible consequences.

The Southern Center for Human Rights also points out:

In the bill’s own words, it “remove[s] all references to standards within the chapter,” “require[s] less collection of data,” “remove[s] training and experience levels for conflict attorneys and other attorneys providing indigent representation,” and “remove[s] time limits for initiating representation and processing requests for services.” https://www.schr.org/resources/georgia_s_indigent_defense_act_on_the_chopping_block

There are over 40 state wide public defender circuits. Keep in mind some circuits cover multiple counties. These changes will take place across Georgia and touch tens of thousands of people.  As you think through this, don’t think of psychopaths, drug traffickers and rapists. Instead think of real people, the people who are just as likely to go through the criminal justice system. A single mom who bought food instead of paying for her car tags, homeless veterans with PTSD, young people that experiment with drugs (if you ever did drugs and never got caught you need to ask “what if?”), people with mental disorders that they can’t control (the biggest mental health treatment centers are currently Grady Hospital, county jails, and the prison system), and children that grow up in abusive households. I’m not saying these folks are angels, they’re not, but they’re human beings. It’s easy to compartmentalize the suffering of others and justify their circumstances. If you’re tempted to have that perspective, then don’t think of the single mom. Think again of the psychopath, you two have more in common than you think. Contact The Southern Center for Human Rights at https://www.schr.org to find out what you can do.

Joshua Brownlee

Practice Areas

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