Gideon Alert: Warren County, Mississippi struggles to provide right to counsel services

BY David Carroll on Friday, April 2, 2010 at 9:46 AM

The Vicksburg Post reports this morning on Warren County’s struggle to provide right to counsel services.  Mississippi requires its counties to fund and administer all trial-level and most appellate defense.  Many counties, including Warren, attempt to fund services by collecting fees from indigent defendants, a process known as "recoupment."  As the article makes clear, “[c]osts of the current system outpaced what supervisors forecast they’d collect in fines last year.” 

Though judges already scrutinize and sometimes even reduce the amounts paid to assigned counsel attorneys, the county is still considering a new cost-containment delivery system.  The system being considered by the county would pay one lead attorney a salary (potentially as low as $43k annually) to oversee attorneys who must agree to take cases for a single flat fee rate.  All of this is because the cost of providing indigent defense climbed to slightly over $387 thousand per year ($100K more than projected).  Interestingly, the county is at the same time considering a plan to build a new jail at a cost of $20-30 million.  Though the article does not make this clear, chances are that part of the need for more jail bed space is because of indigent defendants having their probation revoked for failure to pay their recoupment costs.

Mississippi is a state that exemplifies the need to take a multi-pronged approach to reform.  In 2001, a small group of local advocates were able to convince an influential legislator to spearhead the creation of a statewide indigent defense system.  In the closing days of the session, the legislator was successful in getting a comprehensive reform bill passed that created a defense system mirroring the state’s prosecuting attorney system. Unfortunately, insufficient grassroots support had been built, and there was a dearth of leadership when it came time to fund the fledgling system.  Just one year later, in 2002, the legislature did away with the funding for the new Mississippi defender system and later repealed the reform act altogether.  In 2003, the NAACP-Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc. published an excellent, and unfortunately still pertinent, report on Mississippi’s broken system, Assembly Line Justice: Mississippi’s Indigent Defense System.