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State Lawmakers Back Away From Indigent Defense Changes

Current law requires a person have access to a public defender within three business days of being charged or jailed.
Current law requires a person have access to a public defender within three business days of being charged or jailed.
Credit Penn State / flickr.com/pennstatelive

Georgia lawmakers have backed away from a proposal that would have removed requirements governing public defense, a move that had sparked backlash from attorneys groups in the state.

As part of sweeping reforms to the state’s public defense system taken up more than a decade ago, current law requires a person have access to a public defender within three business days of being charged or jailed. It also requires each circuit defenders office have departments dedicated to juvenile defense and that lawyers have experience proportionate to the type of cases they’re handling.As heard on the radio

Under an amended bill introduced in a House committee late last week, though, that language would have been stripped out. It also would have changed the name of the state agency that oversees the system from the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council to the Georgia Public Defenders Council. The changes to the public defender provisions, tied to a criminal justice reform bill, prompted strong opposition from the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But just before a the committee was set to vote on the bill Monday afternoon, sponsor Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, restored the public defense requirements currently in place.

“We’re committed to having a strong indigent defense program in the state, and so to show that commitment and ensure that this important legislation can go forward, this committee substitute was put forward today,” Efstration said.

Efstration said the changes were initially included on the recommendation of the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council, which argued the current language is ambiguous and unnecessary.

In a statement, Standards Council Director Jimmonique R.S. Rodgers said, “None of the changes proposed in the substitute … modify our mission. None of the changes alter our constitutional, ethical or professional responsibilities to provide zealous and effective representation.”

“The language that we’ve really been talking about really revolves around what should be codified [as law] and where the state Bar factors into enforcement of the bar’s own rules,” Efstration said.

Southern Center director Sara Totonchi praised the move to reinstate the provisions.

“We are really grateful that Rep. Efstration listened to the concerns from lawyers across the state of Georgia, who were so concerned that the bill, as introduced last week, would eviscerate the indigent defense act,” Totonchi said.

Still, she says the center remains opposed to changing the name of the council.

“When the indigent defense act was passed in 2003, standards were at the core of its importance,” Totonchi said. “We would maintain that standards should still be at the core.”

With the changes, the bill passed out of committee with a unanimous vote. It now moves on to the House floor.