SCHR Settles Indigent Defense Class Action Lawsuit Against State of Georgia

16th December, 2011

ATLANTA, GEORGIA-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), reached a settlement 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.  

For additional information or to set up an interview, contact Kathryn Hamoudah at 404/688-1202 or [email protected]

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To read the Consent Decree, click here.

PRESS:

State agrees to bolster public defender system Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 16, 2011
Indigent attorney system goes on trial
Fulton County Daily Report, December 8, 2011
Indigent inmates sue over backlog Fulton County Daily Report, December 16, 2009
Ga. inmates say state fails to assign attorneys Associated Press, December 15, 2009
State inmates waiting years for lawyers to file their appeals, suit says Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 12, 2009

SCHR PRESS RELEASES:
February 23, 2010
: Judge Orders Georgia to Provide Lawyers for Inmates Seeking Appeals
December 15, 2009: Lawsuit Filed to Secure Lawyers for Poor People Seeking Appeals