The impact of the lack of public defenders in Georgia

A lack of public defenders in Georgia means lawyers are overwhelmed and defendants wait for a proper defense – and that wait can last for months. The problem took a long time and will take longer to solve. For a look at the scale of the problem, we now turn to Jason Sheffield. He is past president and current board member of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He spoke to Peter Biello from GPB.


Peter Biello: Let’s start by unpacking who is harmed by such a defect. First of all, the defendants. What happens when someone is accused of a crime and needs a public defender, but is either having trouble getting one or – their assigned public defender has too many clients and perhaps not enough time to focus on them?

Jason Sheffield: The accused is absolutely at the first level of damage that we see in the public defender system nationwide. But there is more. There are the judges who are being harmed and there is the system itself. If you think about it, starting with the accused, these are people who are destitute. When you’re accused of a crime, the state uses all of its power, all of its investigative powers, all of its authority against you. And it triggers certain rights for these defendants. Having someone with you when you are being interrogated, having someone to help you when you come out of prison on bail, someone to explain the charges to you – these are basic basic rights that are being denied because the system is in the crisis.

Peter Biello: You mentioned that judges are harmed by this. Can you tell us how?

Jason Sheffield: A judge wants to do the right thing. Where you don’t have adequate representation for destitute people accused of a crime, the judges don’t hear from the other side, and the judges begin to wonder, “Am I getting the whole story? Am I hearing the full truth?” Judges cannot make informed decisions without the help and support of a criminal defense attorney.

READ :  Suspect accuses lawyer of coercing him into changing plea

Peter Biello: What resources do public defenders need today that they may have had in the past but no longer have?

Jason Sheffield: Being a public defender is a very challenging job for many reasons. It requires that you devote your time to people who do not have the resources to assist you as an attorney in their defense. So you are totally dependent on the state, Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) and/or county to provide you with the funds to do a good job. And this is what a good job in the criminal defense world looks like: an investigator, an office with printers and paper. Historically, GPDC has partnered with the state and the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to always do their best to fund and train these public defenders across the state. But something changed that so fundamentally undermined the efforts of public defenders that they felt unappreciated and unsupported and were then stripped of their offices. Then their printers were taken away from them. And paper was taken away. The camaraderie faded and people began to feel they had no home in which to build their case to protect these defendants.

Peter Biello: And you’re talking about public defenders across the state?

Jason Sheffield: I’m talking about public defenders across the state who have been funded by GPDC. Under new leadership, they began having things taken away, apparently politically motivated.

Peter Biello: Well, let me ask what political electorate would be happy about that? Why is this good for some people?

Jason Sheffield: Of course in Georgia we always worry about our budget. We’ve always been concerned about programs, have been concerned about protecting citizens. But there can be no more basic protection than a citizen’s right and access to the courts and to a lawyer. So when the governor encourages cuts and the director then makes those cuts to an organization that is already underfunded, you begin to destroy the spirits of the people who are providing shelters to those in need across the state.

READ :  NC governor pushes to legalize marijuana possession

Peter Biello: Lawmakers have been discussing pay rises for some in the public defender world. Would that help?

Jason Sheffield: The current problem in Georgia’s public defense system is that there are not enough public defenders because they feel abused by the agency, the state body that traditionally supports and helps them. We would like our office back. We would like a printer. We want to be able to work together and not from home. We don’t want our appeals department to be decimated. Now that appeals department is back, but the appeals department has been disbanded. And several attorneys who specialize in the kinds of issues trial attorneys need to know about when they go to trial — those attorneys have been fired. So you didn’t have a backup. They didn’t have the kind of information that was previously available. It’s as if the government agency expected a bridge to remain stable, but removed the piers under the bridge one by one and is surprised when that bridge collapses.

Peter Biello: For people who are accused of a crime and who are waiting so long for a defense to become available – an adequate defense to become available – is there a short-term solution so that these people do not have to wait in prison as long as like getting lawyers out of jail? Retirement to address the issue quickly, or something else I’m not thinking about? What do you think?

Jason Sheffield: The solution seems to be to start with the state and recognize the state – and by state I mean the GPDC – recognize that they need to be properly funded and they need to lobby the legislature for proper funding. For example, if you look at what happened recently with the ARPA funds, the bailout funds that were given to Georgia, about $100 million — maybe a little bit more than that — 85% to 90% of that was turned over to prosecutors and judges. The rest was given to public defenders. So now prosecutors have more people to prosecute crimes. They have more victim advocates to help with the victim issues in the case. And judges are ready to consider cases. But it’s like a whole lane of cars ready to compete at the Indy 500, and none of them have tires. The hoops, of course, are the public defenders you need to keep the system moving — moving the cases forward. Why have they only received a small percentage of these funds? I don’t know. But that only shows an imbalance in the type of thinking that has become systemic in our legislature and in our state funding agencies.

READ :  GMA presenter TJ Holmes' ex, Marilee Fiebig, breaks the silence and shares the 1st post since his sordid "affair" with co-host Amy Robach

Note: We reached out to Omotayo Alli, Executive Director of the Georgia Public Defender Council. Through a spokesman, she declined our request. But the Georgia Public Defender Council sent out a statement that reads in part: “Prior to 2020, GPDC furloughed attorneys across the state for weeks each year to maintain its budget. In 2020, the agency was more likely to relocate to state offices than furloughed attorneys and there have been zero furloughs since the appointment of Executive Director Alli. We understand that GACDL may be unhappy with GPDC as circumstances require that we provide training and Conduct professional development in-house and reinvest in our own capacity rather than contracting with private groups. “