No Counsel, Convictions or Trials for Longtime Mississippi Jail Inmates

Monday, September 29, 2014
Judge Marcus D. Gordon (Getty Images)

Indefinite detention isn’t found only at Guantanamo Bay or other U.S. military facilities imprisoning terrorism suspects. It’s also used in rural Mississippi on poor people.

At least one jurisdiction, Scott County, routinely keeps prisoners for months and sometimes more than a year at time without indicting them or providing legal counsel. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center are suing the county alleging inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated by being “indefinitely detained” and “indefinitely denied counsel.”

The common practice is for the local judge, Marcus Gordon, to delay appointing a public defender until the prosecutor indicts the defendant. “And there is no state law setting a time limit on detention before an indictment,” The New York Times reported, which results in the defendant languishing in jail without counsel.

Gordon told the newspaper that he delays appointing a public defender in order to save the county money. “The reason is, that public defender would go out and spend his time and money and cost the county money in investigating the matter,” Gordon said. “And then sometimes, the defendant is not indicted by the grand jury. So I wait until he’s been indicted.”

The lawsuit also claims Gordon often sets bail at unreachable amounts, making it impossible for many low-income accused to leave the county jail before trial.

The story of Scott County left one law professor dumbfounded. “This is clearly not what we mean by due process, and this is not what we mean by justice,” Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the NYT. “It doesn’t have to be unique to be absurd.”

The Supreme Court has held that the accused are entitled to an attorney if they can’t afford one, but there’s no guidance how a system of public defenders must be set up. Mississippi leaves the burden on the counties, which can mean there’s limited funding for court-appointed attorneys.

New York’s system is also run by its counties and a class-action lawsuit has been filed there claiming that system operates in violation of civil rights of the accused. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has offered his personal support for the plaintiffs there.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

In a Mississippi Jail, Convictions and Counsel Appear Optional (by Campbell Robertson, New York Times)

Holder Backs Suit in New York Faulting Legal Service for Poor (by Matt Apuzzo, New York Times)

Two Prisoners in Mississippi County Still Awaiting Trial after 6 and 7 Years (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Most People in U.S. Jails have not yet been Tried (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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