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Southern Center for Human Rights Releases Georgia Public Defender Council Open Records Database

In 2003, the Georgia Legislature passed the Indigent Defense Act, which created a state agency—the Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) — charged with providing adequate and effective legal representation to all indigent persons charged with a crime in Georgia. Most people accused of a crime who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer receive a public defender through one of Georgia’s circuit public defender offices. However, when the State charges more than one person for the same crime, which often occurs in RICO or Gang Act cases, the circuit public defender can only represent one of the accused, and GPDC must provide a conflict attorney for the other accused persons.

Just over a year ago, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) learned that GPDC was failing to provide conflict attorneys to hundreds of indigent persons across Georgia and began investigating GPDC’s conflict defender system by submitting a series of Open Records Act requests to GPDC.

Today, we are launching a public database to share a selection of the documents we have received from GPDC via the ORA since March 2022.

What is Georgia’s Open Records Act (ORA)?

The Georgia ORA guarantees public access to records kept and maintained by public agencies in Georgia. This includes all documents, physical and digital, prepared, maintained, and received as part of the operation of a public office or agency; however, agencies are not required to create any new documents and are only responsible for providing documentation that is already maintained and kept. Agencies must respond to open records requests within three business days of receipt. They may impose a nominal or small fee for the search, redaction, and production of all responsive records related to a request, but the ORA does not require the collection of fees. If a request is wholly or partially denied, the agency must provide the statute that allows them to withhold the records.

How to Use the Database:

SCHR has categorized these records in six ways:

  • Attorney Grievances: Attorneys expressing concerns about their work and/or working conditions;
  • Funding: Attorney budgets and expenses, GPDC budgets and expenses, etc;
  • Judge Grievances: Judges expressing concerns about representation for people appearing in their courtrooms;
  • Caseloads: Caseload data and lists;
  • Staffing: Local office staffing concerns; and
  • Unrepresented Individuals: Any mention of an unrepresented person or persons.

To use the database, members of the public may click through all documents or use the category filter to look through specific records. These records can be used to see how this crisis is playing out in your county, nearby counties, and throughout Georgia.

People Waiting Months for Lawyers

Records show that due to delayed representation, incarcerated persons languish in jail for months and years without counsel. In one email, then Fulton Chief Judge Christopher S. Brasher emailed the Atlanta Judicial Circuit Public Defender about “horror stories” he’d heard about the current state of conflict representation throughout the state.

And because of GPDC’s poor record keeping, judges have had to take on the responsibility of identifying the people in need of conflict representation. Email records show judges providing GPDC with lists of individuals awaiting the appointment of counsel, and in one instance, Chief Judge Ural D. Glanville contacted GPDC because a defendant in his courtroom had been waiting approximately nine months for a lawyer. This delay ground his case to a halt, with the court unable to conduct any hearings for him.

Large Caseloads and Unrepresented Persons

Records show C-3 attorneys with caseloads as high as 553 and conflict defenders as high as 209. These large individual caseloads have impacted the ability of attorneys to effectively represent their clients and dedicate adequate time to each person.

Other GPDC documents highlight the hundreds of adults and children in Georgia without a court-appointed conflict attorney.

Attorney Grievances

GPDC records make clear that attorney retention is a persistent problem throughout the state. In one email exchange, former Atlanta Judicial Circuit Conflict Attorney Elizabeth Matthew stated she could “sense the storm coming.” Matthew voiced her concern that conflict attorneys did not have sufficient time to review the State’s evidence and that judges were assigning them clients without notice.

Attorney Keisha Steed shares similar feelings about case preparation. In a series of disclosed messages shared in a group message of Atlanta and Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit attorneys, Attorney Steed stated that she was working with a lack of resources, including not having access to a “designated investigator.” She stated that she knew her clients were not getting the defense they needed because GPDC would not provide them with the “manpower and tools” to represent their clients and that she did not believe this was the purpose of GPDC.

We plan to maintain and update this database and upload records as we receive them.

How to Use the ORA to Request Indigent Defense Records

If you would like to request additional information from GPDC regarding the indigent defense system in Georgia, you may email GPDC’s custodian of records at [email protected].

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation offers sample records requests to the public. You can find them here:

GPDC Public Records Database