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When the Legal System Leaves Rural Areas Behind

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But many of these rural jails house a large number of local defendants who are awaiting trial, as Keene was. According to Vera, while urban pretrial populations began to level off and then decline in the early 2000s, those populations kept growing in rural counties, eventually eclipsing urban ones. In 2013, rural counties had 265 pretrial detainees per 100,000 people, almost one-third higher than the urban rate.

In counties like LaSalle, this increase has to do with a pervasive tough-on-crime culture in law enforcement and prosecution. But it is also due in significant part to a shortage of resources—not enough funding for pretrial services, limited times when court is in session, and limited public defenders.

While it is well known that public defenders’ caseloads are untenably high in jurisdictions nationwide, prompting lawsuits, the situation is particularly dire in largely rural states such as Louisiana. These so-called legal deserts may have only one or two defense attorneys, who are usually near retirement with no one to take their place. In Mississippi, defendants routinely wait up to a year to even get assigned counsel. In Minnesota, counties can span hundreds of miles and court may sit only twice a month, requiring staff and lawyers to drive an hour each way.

Keene, while waiting in jail, was proactive in seeking his and his wife’s release. In September 2015, he wrote a letter to the court asking for a hearing to challenge the legitimacy of the charges, given the unusual nature of Berry’s purchase. He requested that they be allowed to appear without a lawyer, because their public defenders were overburdened with cases: “Our time with them is limited.” The court put his request for a hearing on pause, and like others among the 19 defendants, he was forced to put his life on hold.

A few days later, the prosecutor’s office officially released Berry’s identity as the informant. In January and March 2016, the public defender’s office filed motions to recuse itself from representing Keene and the defendants in the other cases related to Berry, due to conflict of interest.

Over several months in early 2016, attorneys from the MacArthur Justice Center (unrelated to the MacArthur Foundation, which funded reporting for this story), a criminal-justice advocacy organization, filed motions challenging the detention of Keene and some of the 19 others as an infringement of their constitutional rights. They argued they shouldn’t be kept in jail indefinitely without adequate representation simply because appropriate lawyers weren’t, and would perhaps never be, available.  

These motions were not successful, but put pressure on the district attorney to resolve the situation. The judge didn’t rule on the public defender’s office’s motions to recuse itself, and the office continued not to work on the cases. However, in an uncommon arrangement, the district attorney offered all of the defendants plea deals for a single count of drug possession that would render some of them eligible for immediate release. The public defenders, in turn, agreed to convey this plea offer to the defendants, so long as the court granted each client access to independent counsel to advise them of their rights. Most of them took the deal.

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