Gideon Alert: 11 minute justice in South Carolina misdemeanor courts

BY David Carroll on Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 6:19 PM

In 2007, the State of South Carolina took a major step forward in assuring the promise of Gideon v. WainwrightLegislation that year created a circuit public defender system.  The 16 circuit public defenders are appointed by the statewide South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense – a 13-member commission appointed by diverse authorities – upon nomination of local attorneys representing counties in the circuit.  A central Office of Indigent Defense under the Commission establishes indigency guidelines and attorney performance guidelines, provides training, and distributes state funding.  Counties share the burden of funding the right to counsel in the circuits.

Today’s Charleston Post-Courier shows that standards and structure can only go so far without appropriate funding.  One public defender from Charleston is highlighted for his Herculean effort, including representing 44 clients in a single day (which comes down to a little under 11 minutes per client).  Annually, the attorney is estimated to handle more than 930 misdemeanor clients – 133% above national standards for misdemeanor attorneys – a number exacerbated by having to cover 12 different courts throughout the county.  South Carolina ranks 43rd of the 50 states in per capita funding between Idaho and Michigan – two states NLADA has evaluated and deemed to be failing in their duty to meet the constitutional right to counsel.

Although misdemeanor convictions or sentences may not generally result in lengthy incarceration, the life consequences of convictions can be severe, including job loss, family breakup, substance abuse, and deportation – all factors that tend to foster recidivism or require further court action at tax payer expense.  And, as the article indicates, many South Carolina counties do not even have this level of services for misdemeanor clients in the county and municipal lower courts.

States should consider reducing crowded dockets by looking to alternative forms of disposition for those accused of non-serious misdemeanors. There are benefits to reevaluating the criminal justice system’s treatment of misdemeanors that carry possible jail time, but for which incarceration is rarely sought or imposed. If these non-serious offenses were treated as civil infractions or made subject to reduced penalties that do not include incarceration, the impact on crowded court dockets would be significant.

By reducing dockets, these kinds of changes would relieve some of the pressure on courts to move criminal cases through the system quickly and, in turn, gives judges additional time to devote to more serious prosecutions. Removing these cases from the criminal docket will conserve resources for defense, prosecution, courts and related agencies.  The savings could be used to fund other needs in a resource starved defense system.  Civil fines imposed in lieu of jail time are a potential revenue source as well.  And public safety would be better protected, because the entire criminal justice system could focus on offenses that harm people, rather than on non-violent or regulatory infractions.  Taxpayers should be receiving safety in exchange for their tax dollars.

Creative sentencing alternatives have been endorsed by the 2004 report of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission, which undertook a comprehensive analysis of punishment, incarceration and sentencing. The report provides a blueprint for sentencing and corrections reform and supports alternatives to incarceration for offenders who pose minimal risk to the community and appear likely to benefit from rehabilitation efforts.