Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jim Kitchens Credit: MSSC

Several shortcomings in how Mississippi provides counsel to indigent defendants in felony cases are identified in a report released today.

The Mississippi Public Defender Task Force’s 132-page study says the state has no system for ensuring local governments provide effective counsel to indigent defendants accused of felonies in trial courts. And the task force recommends legislation to address what it considers deficiencies in the state’s legal system.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, states are responsible for overseeing defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. In Mississippi, the state only directly assesses the qualification of an indigent defendant’s counsel in death eligible cases.

“I feel very strongly that Mississippi would benefit in multiple ways from a well organized and adequately funded state defender system so we wouldn’t have great disparity in the quality of legal representation in different  parts of the state,” said state Supreme Court Presiding Justice and chairman of the Public Defender Task Force James W. Kitchens.

“The majority of defendants in circuit courts in Mississippi are indigent. They can’t afford a lawyer who is as good, experienced and well trained as the district attorney and his or her assistants,” he added.

The task force commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center in Boston and the Defender Initiative of the Seattle University School of Law to conduct observations, interviews and analyze data, beginning in 2015.

The study examined indigent defense services in 10 counties: Adams, Clarke, DeSoto, Forrest, George, Harrison, Hinds, Leflore, Lowndes and Pearl River.

Throughout the state, the report found, indigent defendants charged with felonies are denied the right to counsel between arrest and arraignment, a period that is commonly at least a few months and occasionally over a year.

“There are many very dedicated lawyers out there who are taking court appointed cases, who are doing their very best to provide the same quality of services that they provide to paying clients,” Kitchens said. “But on the whole, the system as it is now has a lot of shortcomings and it’s more expensive than a well organized and adequately funded public defender system would be.”

The report recommends legislation that would better enable the state to provide effective indigent defense.

“Utilizing the recommendations in this report, the Office of State Public Defender and the Public Defender Task Force will be able to provide the Legislature with a plan to correct the deficiencies in the current splintered system while retaining those aspects that are working well,” said State Public Defender André de Gruy, a member of the task force.

“We understand that this plan will need to be cost effective but we strongly believe that constitutionally mandated indigent defense spending should be a ‘Justice Reinvestment’ priority,” he added.

The release of the report came a day after the 55th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, which established the right to counsel for poor people facing felony charges under the Sixth Amendment.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.