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Assembly Line Justice in Georgia Courts

ATLANTA (CN) - Georgia's 8th Judicial District underfunds its public defender's office so badly that its juvenile courts have more judges than public defenders, denying children the right to counsel, and sending adults to jail for months before trial, a class action claims in state court.

Four children and four adults sued Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal and the director of Georgia's Public Defender Standards Council W. Travis Sakrison, in Fulton County State Court.

Lead plaintiff N.P. by his next friend Shaneka Darden claims the Cordele Judicial Circuit is so "severely understaffed and grossly underfunded" that children get no meaningful representation and receive only "assembly-line justice."

The plaintiffs claim that though public defender representation is mandatory for children at risk of detention, commitment or probation, some children are tried and sentenced without counsel.

In 2012, the circuit handled 681 juvenile delinquency cases, but the public defender reported handling only 52 of them, according to the complaint on behalf of two classes, children and adults.

And the circuit does not have attorneys specialized in the defense of juveniles, the class claims.

Adults who cannot afford a lawyer stay in jail for months after arrest, and children at risk for detention go through the courts without access to a public defender, according to the 85-page complaint.

The Cordele Judicial Circuit, based in Cordele, is in South Central Georgia, south of Macon. It includes Crisp, Ben Hill, Dooly and Wilcox counties. Cordele, pop. 11,300, calls itself "the watermelon capital of the world."

"The circuit's public defender office is severely understaffed and grossly underfunded," the lawsuit states. "It has only three full-time lawyers and, since July 1, 2013, a lawyer under contract to work no more than 75 hours per month. This is half the number of attorneys in the Cordele Circuit District Attorney's office. The disparity is even greater with respect to investigators: while the District Attorney's office is assisted by numerous local and state law enforcement agencies, the circuit's public defender office has a single investigator who typically only conducts initial interviews with people detained in jail for the sole purpose of completing the public defender eligibility application. Unlike other circuit public defender offices in the state, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender Office does not receive county funds to employ additional assistant public defenders and investigators.

"The circuit's public defenders are required to handle such an excessive number of cases that they are unable to provide representation in all of the courts and cases in the circuit. Each county has a Superior Court and a juvenile court. There are three Superior Court judges and one juvenile court judge. Thus, there may be more judges presiding over courts than there are public defenders. On many occasions, all of the public defenders must be in one court to deal with a large volume of cases and are unable to be in another court. The public defenders are unable to spend more than a few minutes per case which does not allow them to develop representational relationships with the people they are supposed to represent."

Most adults who cannot afford an attorney spend weeks or months in jail and see a public defender only for a few minutes during bond hearings or arraignments, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs claim the circuit public defenders have no time to get to know the people they represent, assess the charges against them, conduct investigations or offer meaningful legal advice.

Defendants who plead not guilty must investigate their own cases and find witnesses on their own. Defendants must also pay a $50 public defender fee, even when the lawyers miss their hearings, according to the lawsuit.

The minor plaintiffs, most of whom were charged with burglary, theft or disorderly conduct, say their probation could be revoked if they fail to pay the $50 fee.

They say the circuit fails to tell defendants that the fee can be waived, and the public defenders rarely ask for waivers or preliminary hearings.

Until mid-2009, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender received both state and county money for assistant public defenders. However, the circuit's county governments stopped funding two attorney positions in 2008 and 2009, leaving the office with only three full-time attorneys to handle cases in four superior courts and four juvenile courts. By comparison, the District Attorney's office has seven attorneys, with one dedicated to the circuit's juvenile courts, according to the complaint.

In 2010 and 2011, Cordele public defenders handled about 1,200 cases per year. In 2012, their caseload grew to 1,384, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs claim judicial circuits with comparable caseloads receive county funding for assistant public defenders and are much better staffed.

They seek class certification, an injunction and damages for constitutional violations.

They are represented by Stephen Bright with the Southern Center for Human Rights and attorneys from Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter.

"Poor people accused of crime in the Cordele Circuit are not 'represented by counsel' in any meaningful way and, instead, are processed through the courts in assembly-line fashion at arraignments and largely neglected the rest of the time," Southern Center attorney Atteeyah Hollie said in a statement. "Children are frequently not represented at all."

Gov. Deal's office declined to comment.

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