Just in to Peach Pundit, we have word that the State of Georgia and the Southern Center for Human Rights have reached a settlement in the lawsuit regarding how Georgia provides counsel for those who cannot afford it. The SCHR has forwarded the following release
, which is the level of detail we have at this time and is followed by a statement from Travis Sakrison, the Executive Director of the GPDSC:
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, December 16, 2011 – Today, a class-action challenge to the fairness of the state’s indigent defense system that was brought on behalf of nearly 200 people convicted of offenses who were without counsel has reached a settlement.
To guarantee the right to adequate representation for poor people in Georgia who have been convicted of offenses carrying a term of incarceration and who are currently without effective legal counsel, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and co-counsel Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore, L.L.P. (BME, LLP), entered a Consent Order with the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council (GPDSC).
“We believe this is an important and significant step towards making Georgia’s indigent defense system capable of providing our clients with the representation to which they are entitled,” said SCHR Attorney Lauren Sudeall Lucas.
SCHR and BME, LLP filed Flournoy v. State of Georgia in December 2009, to challenge the state’s failure to provide counsel for nearly 200 convicted indigent defendants who did not have lawyers to represent them in their appeals. At the time the lawsuit was filed, severe budget cuts rendered the GPDSC inadequately staffed and funded to meet the constitutional obligations to provide counsel to those convicted of crimes.
As a result of severe budget cuts, GPDSC’s Appellate Division was staffed by only two full-time and one part-time staff attorneys. The funding available for contracted private counsel who could also take on such appeals had also been cut in half from $336,000 in Fiscal Year 2009 to $160,000 for Fiscal Year 2010. Since the filing of the lawsuit, the class size grew from nearly 200 to more than 800 indigent defendants, but the resources dedicated to their representation did not keep pace.
One of the remedies included in today’s settlement is the requirement that GPDSC hire seven additional staff attorneys to staff the Appellate Division and implement a system that monitors the caseloads carried by individual lawyers.
The agreement also creates a specific process by which contract attorneys and staff attorneys will be hired – including a thorough review of their qualifications, which must meet certain minimum requirements. And it changes the contracts under which private attorneys are hired by providing them the resources and incentives to effectively represent their clients.
Additionally, GPDSC must implement a mechanism for oversight and accountability of the qualified private attorneys with whom they contract for services. “We are very pleased that the state has agreed to make several significant reforms to its indigent defense system that will protect the constitutional rights of the accused.
The improvements guaranteed by the consent decree will lead to a fairer and more accurate criminal justice system,” said Michael Caplan, attorney for the Plaintiffs from Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore, L.L.P. The Flournoy matter is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by SCHR in response to the State’s continued refusal to fully fund the State’s indigent defense system.
In 2010, SCHR settled Cantwell v. Crawford, another lawsuit against GPDSC on behalf of hundreds of poor people accused of crimes in Georgia’s Northern Judicial Circuit who were without counsel. In 2008, Former GPDSC Director Mack Crawford attempted to close the Metro Conflict Defender office and reversed the decision only after SCHR filed suit.
Statement from the GPDSC:
Today,the Council unanimously approved the proposed settlement in Flournoy v. GPDSC, et al. The terms are not yet public, but will be made available when the settlement is final.
“In its current form, we believe that the proposed settlement is a reasonable resolution to this issue for the clients GPDSC represents and the state of Georgia. The issues claimed in the suit have been addressed by processes already in place. The term of the Consent Decree mirrored much of what GPDSC has already implemented and aligns with
our future plans, making a settlement possible.”