February 11, 2014
By: Kim Ball, BJA Policy Advisor
Last year, our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). This case unanimously established that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that states appoint lawyers for those accused of a crime that carries a potential loss of liberty who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In the years since Gideon, state governments and policymakers have struggled with finding the most effective ways to make their courts fair, promote public safety and fiscal responsibility, and ensure quality representation for all defendants at every stage of a criminal proceeding.
Last year, to help state policymakers and legislators evaluate their public defense services, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) committed $90,000 to technical assistance to help several states meet their constitutional obligations to provide quality legal representation for all defendants.
Recently, BJA NTTAC provided funding for the Mississippi Office of the State Public Defender (OSPD) to work with the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC), a non-profit organization that specializes in providing right to counsel technical services. The OSPD and 6AC worked together to examine how the delivery of trial-level public defense is provided across the state. With the help of the 6AC, the OSPD surveyed judges, county executives, and public defense providers to document how trial-level services are delivered at the circuit court level. The OSPD compiled survey responses into a map and data table, and disseminated these findings back to criminal justice stakeholders for review. According to David Carroll, 6AC Executive Director, “doing this comparison allowed local policymakers and stakeholders to see their county in the context of others.”
Next, the 6AC compared Mississippi’s public-defense delivery system with its four neighboring states, which also proved helpful to the OSPD and stakeholders in understanding where Mississippi’s public defense delivery system ranks in relation to comparable states. Using the findings of the survey and comparison to the other states, the 6AC will provide a report to the OSPD identifying potential shortcomings in Mississippi’s trial-level public defense services and offer recommendations to address them. The full report will be made public in March 2014 and will be made accessible on the OSPD and 6AC web sites.
Mississippi is just one state among many looking for ways to improve its state-wide public defense delivery system. “Helping states measure their public defense systems against established standards of justice is a critical step in living up to the ideals of the Sixth Amendment,” said Carroll. “The right to counsel is fundamental and essential to fair trials.” Policymakers and state governments are becoming more and more aware there is a public defense crisis, and are looking for ways to address it by working with organizations like the BJA NTTAC and the 6AC to identify problems and look for solutions.
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