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Our Views: Courts on the cheap

Underfunding legal system, public defenders defies Constitution, will cost more over time

POSTED: October 30, 2011 1:00 a.m.

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial ... and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." — U.S. Constitution, Sixth Amendment.

The ongoing give-and-take over what role government should play in our lives sparks a partisan debate that fills our election campaigns, cable TV talkfests and editorial pages. In most cases, it's a healthy and worthwhile discussion over striking a balance between two divergent points of view.

But there is at least one job of government we all can agree is vital to managing a civil society: an effective, fair system of dispensing justice. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution promises this, and to ignore it is a violation of that sacred document.

Not even the most diehard small-government advocate believes government should abandon a system of justice both for lawbreakers and civil action. And yet, in an era when budget cuts have sliced into government functions at all levels, our legal system finds itself forced to do more with less, and the effect is disturbing.

A recent American Bar Association report revealed that many states cut court funding 10 percent to 15 percent within the past three years.

Georgia courts have endured staff cuts that have helped create massive case backloads in some counties. As a result, many suspects linger in jails for months or years awaiting trials. And cuts to public defender offices have left many accused criminals with appointed attorneys who are overworked and unable to provide the legal defense our Constitution guarantees.

In one recent example, defense attorneys blame a lack of state funding for repeated delays in bringing a death penalty case to trial in Forsyth County. Now, appointed attorney Bill Finch is trying to get the case dismissed due to the state's failure to try his client in a reasonable amount of time.

"So much time has transpired we believe that it is unconstitutional to continue going forward with the case," Finch said of the pending trial for Marcin Sosniak, accused in the 2006 slaying of four people in a farmhouse.

Hall County has endured the same budget strains, with cuts to the Northeast Judicial Circuit's Public Defender's Office delaying many cases. The attorneys there are taking on more cases with fewer people on board, forcing them to work seven-day weeks to get them to trial.

Guilty verdicts in cases where appointed attorneys are unable to provide a reasonable defense can lead to more appeals, and delays, for both the guilty and innocent.

"If you don't have enough lawyers to handle the cases, it leaves them open to speedy-trial challenges and ineffective assistance of counsel," said Ed Burnette, a vice president of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

The cuts in public defender budgets is a clear case where the state has been penny wise but pound foolish. The dollar saved on the front end can lead to a waste of thousands on the other as accused criminals are kept incarcerated for longer periods, running up huge taxpayer bills. And the longer the case drags, the longer attorneys' meters keep running up a bigger tab.

"It's $18,000 a year to keep somebody in penitentiary, so if you save one year, you save $18,000 to $20,000," said Hall County Public Defender Brad Morris.

Prosecutors' offices have suffered similar cuts, with shorter staffs, furloughs and pay cuts hampering their ability to get cases to trial quickly.

"Any time you have fewer available court days and fewer available court days to get ready for court it would tend to slow things down," said Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh.

The result is not just that many innocent persons linger in jail awaiting trial. In some cases, the guilty go free when appellate courts are forced to dismiss indictments because of lengthy delays. In other instances, the rush to wrap up cases leads to more plea bargains that sidestep a jury trial and leaves a bad taste with everyone.

This is a particular concern in death penalty cases that, under the best of circumstances, can drag out in the courts over several years, running up huge costs on all sides. Yet state funding for the Georgia Resource Center, which provides legal aid for indigent death penalty defendants, has fallen by about $250,000 over three years.

Even if you don't feel any true compassion toward those accused in such cases — though remember, we do assume innocence until guilt is proven — then think of the families of victims who must wait that much longer for justice to be administered. Their agony is drawn out over years in cases that should be put to rest sooner.

The delaying of justice violates the constitutional rights of the guilty, the innocent and the victims of crime. It costs the state and local jurisdictions more in the long run as our jails are filled to the brim with suspects awaiting trial and law offices ring up huge bills. And in some cases, it puts criminals back on the streets because their right to a speedy trial has been set aside because we're too cheap to pay for it.

This is not the wild West where a posse would run down an accused bandit and hang him from a sour apple tree without a trial. Our justice system, flawed as it may be, is the best the world has yet devised. Yet if we continue to undermine it through funding cuts, we chip away at the very foundation of the free and fair society we have sought to create.

The General Assembly needs to get serious next year in fully funding the state's court and public defender systems. Its lawmakers need to quit trying to score cheap points with voters by pretending the courts are a mere hindrance to their wise leadership. To fail to provide the resources needed is unconstitutional and un-American and should not be tolerated.



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