Throughout Georgia, a growing number of people accused of crimes are waiting to have their cases heard and their verdicts decided so they can either pay their debts to society or get on with their lives.
For many, the delay in going to trial is not because of a court's backlog of cases but from their own lack of legal representation. That's because the state's indigent defense system is going broke, and no one in power seems overly motivated to fix it.
No doubt, lawyers for poor people is not one of the more popular expenses state government assumes. But it is an important aspect of our justice system and can't be ignored. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.
Our nation was founded on several key legal principles, among them innocence until proven guilty, due process of law and rights of the accused, as promised by the Fifth through Eighth Amendments, fully 40 percent of the Bill of Rights.
The Sixth Amendment, in particular, assures that all who are accused of crimes "have the assistance of counsel for his defence." That means providing legal counsel for those who can't afford their own, which at today's prices and in a slumping economy includes more than a few.
Thus, the concept of providing public defenders is not just the ideological ramblings of criminal rights advocates, or a government-funded cash cow for attorneys; it is part of our Constitution.
When in court, it shouldn't matter who you are, how famous or influential you are or how much money you have. The law is designed to apply equally to all.
It is vital that a civilized society punish those who break the law and remove violent criminals from society. But it also means giving the innocent the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. Doing so means granting legal counsel that can capably apply all legal protections on the accused's behalf.
It's easy to become frustrated with a legal system that seems to favor the lawbreaker over the law. But it is designed that way to ensure that only the truly guilty will face the consequences. Its intent is not to protect criminals from justice but to protect the innocent from justice gone wrong. The only thing worse than seeing a guilty person walk free is for an innocent one to go to prison.
For that reason, it is vital that each state provide reasonable legal defense for all accused persons. And in Georgia, that has been a mounting challenge. The state's public defender system is strapped for cash, unable to pay independent lawyers the going rate to defend clients who can't afford them. As a result, many face lengthy trial delays, and often are incarcerated without bond as their case sits in limbo. As more public defenders take on growing caseloads, their clients have to wait in jail even longer to have their cases resolved.
In recent months, the Hall County Public Defender's Office has been unable to pay outside attorneys to take on indigent cases as the state's coffers have dried up. The defenders have been forced to delay some cases and in others have had to argue both sides of "conflict cases" involving multiple plaintiffs because there's no more money to bring in private attorneys.
State legislators seem to look upon the public defender system as an unneeded expense. In the last session, they approved $1.6 million in expenses already billed out to private lawyers for indigent cases, but have yet to OK another $1.8 million to provide defense for several capital offense cases that remain stalled.
Some of the blame for that can be pinned on one case involving one man. Indigent defense funding became an issue when astronomical costs were piled up by the team of lawyers appointed to represent Fulton County Courthouse killer Brian Nichols.
For more than three years, Nichols' trial dragged on as his defense team ran up an estimated $2 million to $3 million in taxpayer-paid bills. That single trial drained the indigent defense budget, forcing judges in many cases to put off trials as court-appointed lawyers went unpaid.
The Nichols trial did even greater damage in the long run. A man seen by everyone as clearly guilty was gaming the system with lawyers intent on raiding the state's till, the public's perception of indigent defense soured. Like the Pentagon's $600 toilet seat cover, the system became seen as a waste of money during tough economic times.
It's tempting for many to assume that the impoverished riff-raff who fill our county jails are automatically guilty and not worth our hard-earned cash. But that's not the American ideal of justice. Our legal system is the finest ever devised because it doesn't allow for kangaroo courts that imprison citizens on false pretenses, as do more oppressive governments. If we can't trust the validity of our jurisprudence, everything we hold dear comes tumbling down.
There is one glimmer of hope. The legislature tossed out one lifeline this year by passing a law allowing prosecutors to seek life without parole. Death penalty cases like Nichols' and others siphon an exorbitant amount of money from the public defense budget because judges and prosecutors must go to greater lengths to ensure guilt. By giving them the option of life in prison — one might call it the slower version of the death penalty — some of those capital cases may be tried more quickly and with less expense.
Of course, we'll still wind up paying to incarcerate more capital offenders in state prisons for years on end. That's the price we pay to keep them off our streets, just as the money we pay to provide them with lawyers assures that their convictions are valid.
Justice is not cheap. We pay for prisons to keep us safe from criminals. We also must pay for public defenders to keep the criminals, the wrongly accused and all of us safe from government's ability to impose justice unfairly.