The outgoing leader of the legislative committee responsible for criminal justice issues plans to hold a hearing Thursday on how Mississippi provides constitutionally required legal services to poor people accused of a crime.
House Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, said on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast on Sept. 25 that the hearing this week will center on reforming the state’s disjointed public defense system.
“We lag behind in public defense, indigent defense in Mississippi,” Bain said. “We don’t have a uniform system all over the state. That is as much of a constitutional right as your right to bear arms, your freedom of speech or your right to the press.”
Recent reporting from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (now part of Mississippi Today), ProPublica, The Marshall Project and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal shows that Mississippi’s indigent defense network is disjointed with no uniform system in place.
“In other states, any discussion of policy change takes place at one or two systems,” David Carroll, director of the Sixth Amendment Center, told the news outlets. “There are nearly 500 indigent defense systems in Mississippi.”
Mississippi is one of only a handful of states without direct state oversight of public defense. Instead, local governments bear almost all the responsibility of providing poor criminal defendants with an attorney, as guaranteed by the Constitution.
In many counties, defendants aren’t appointed new lawyers until they’re indicted, a process that can take years. And by the time defendants receive a court-appointed attorney, so much time has passed that the lawyer is unable to locate crucial witnesses or evidence that could exonerate them.
To combat these deficiencies, Bain believes the state needs a public defense organization with counties grouped together into districts that parallel how state prosecutors, called district attorneys, function.
Numerous task forces dating back to 1995 have highlighted the state’s fractured system that leaves defendants in jail for long periods of time without an attorney. But state leaders haven’t done much to change the system.
Bain, a part-time public defender, believes counties and cities are hesitant to spend a significant portion of resources on public defense because of a “tough on crime” mentality in Mississippi that makes public officials queasy about spending tax dollars on people accused of committing serious offenses.
However, the three-term lawmaker argues if local and state governments provide more money to indigent defense, it can save them more money in the long run.
“It’s beneficial to your cities and your counties to do this,” Bain said. “For whatever cost it may have, it certainly outweighs, I think, liability down the road. Not to mention, it’s the humane thing to do, to help these people.”
But even with an upcoming hearing, there’s no guarantee that Bain’s dream will ever become reality anytime soon. The Alcorn County lawmaker recently lost his reelection bid when his Republican challenger defeated him by around 26 votes in a runoff race.
When lawmakers convene at the state Capitol in January for their 2024 regular session, presumptive Speaker Jason White will appoint new House members to lead the chamber’s legislative committees, including the Judiciary B Committee.
Whoever becomes the new leader of the committee Bain currently leads will help determine the future of the notoriously fractured defense system.