Report examines indigent criminal defense in Mississippi

March 19, 2018

The Mississippi Public Defender Task Force today released a report which takes a critical look at the way indigent criminal defendants are represented in state courts.

The report, “The Right to Counsel in Mississippi: Evaluation of Adult Felony Trial Level Indigent Defense Services,” assesses adult felony trial level indigent defense services throughout the state and examines indigent defense in 10 counties: Adams, Clarke, DeSoto, Forrest, George, Harrison, Hinds, Leflore, Lowndes and Pearl River. The Public Defender Task Force selected the 10 counties as a diverse sample of rural, suburban and urban populations across the state.

The Task Force commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center of Boston and the Defender Initiative of the Seattle University School of Law to study the varied ways indigent criminal defense is provided in Mississippi. Work began in 2015. Researchers spent almost three years doing court observation, interviews and data analysis to produce the 132-page report and recommendations.
The report may be viewed at this link:
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The Task Force made the report public a day after the 55th anniversary of the historic Gideon v. Wainwright decision. The U.S. Supreme Court on March 18, 1963, established the right to counsel for poor people facing felony charges.

Supreme Court Presiding Justice James W. Kitchens, chairman of the Public Defender Task Force, said, “I feel very strongly that Mississippi would benefit in multiple ways from a well organized and adequately funded state defender system so we wouldn’t have great disparity in the quality of legal representation in different parts of the state.”

“This study by the Sixth Amendment Center is a giant step in the right direction. It gives us a good sampling with these 10 counties they studied. They are representative of most places in the state. It gives us a lot of insight into where we are now and where we need to go in the future,” Justice Kitchens said.

Justice Kitchens, a former district attorney who has also represented indigent defendants, said, “The DA system is a very good, functioning system. The counterpart of that system is the public defender system. The majority of defendants in circuit courts in Mississippi are indigent. They can’t afford a lawyer who is as good , experienced and well trained as the district attorney and his or her assistants.”

“There are many very dedicated lawyers out there who are taking court appointed cases, who are doing their very best to provide the same quality of services that they provide to paying clients. But on the whole, the system as it is now has a lot of shortcomings and it’s more expensive than a well organized and adequately funded public defender system would be,” Justice Kitchens said.

State Defender André de Gruy, a member of the Task Force, said, “When the Legislature created the Office of State Public Defender, they mandated the State Defender, working with the Public Defender Task Force, develop plans and proposals for further development of a statewide public defender system. We believe this comprehensive study of our current statewide practices will demonstrate the urgency of our task.”

“Every government expenditure should be based on evidence-based study and there must be accountability. Utilizing the recommendations in this report , OSPD and the Public Defender Task Force will be able to provide the Legislature with a plan to correct the deficiencies in the current splintered system while retaining those aspects that are working well. We understand that this plan will need to be cost effective but we strongly believe that constitutionally mandated indigent defense spending should be a ‘Justice Reinvestment’ priority,” de Gruy said.

Here are the report’s findings:

1. The State of Mississippi has no method to ensure that its local governments are fulfilling the state’s constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel to the indigent accused in felony cases in its trial courts.

2. The State of Mississippi does not ensure the independence of the defense function from undue judicial interference in the selection and compensation of felony indigent defense attorneys.

3. Outside of death eligible cases, there are no standards or oversight in Mississippi to ensure that felony indigent defense attorneys have the necessary qualifications, skill, experience, and training to match the complexity of the cases they are assigned.

4. Throughout the State of Mississippi, indigent defendants charged with felony offenses are denied the right to counsel at the critical pretrial stage between arrest and arraignment following indictment, a period that is commonly at least a few months and occasionally as long as a year or more.

5. The State of Mississippi does not ensure that felony indigent defense attorneys have sufficient time and necessary resources, including investigators and social work services, to provide effective representation.

6. Felony indigent defense attorneys in Mississippi consistently carry excessive caseloads that prevent the rendering of effective representation.

The report’s recommendations are:

1. The Mississippi Legislature should enact legislation enabling the state to meet its Fourteenth Amendment obligation of ensuring Sixth Amendment services meet the parameters of effective indigent defense systems, as described in United States v. Cronic.

2. The Mississippi Office of the State Public Defender, along with any government body tasked with developing indigent defense standards, should work with parallel law enforcement, prosecution, judicial, and corrections bodies at the state and local level to:

I. Determine effective, efficient, and fiscally responsible methods to track every individual case from commission of the offense through dismissal or completion of sentence;
II. Evaluate existing criminal justice processes and make systemic recommendations to ensure that counsel is provided to indigent defendants at every critical stage of a case after the right to counsel has attached;
III. Recommend statutory changes to decrease the overall need for right to counsel services through increased diversion and reclassification to make certain violations ineligible for incarceration.

3. Through legislation or court rule, the State of Mississippi should ban payment agreements that cause conflicts of interest between the indigent defense attorney’s financial self-interest and the legal interests of the indigent defendant.

Seven Mississippi counties have full-time public defender offices. They are Forrest, Harrison, Hinds, Jackson, Lamar, Pearl River and Washington. Pearl River County is the most recent county to establish a full-time public defender office.

Twelve counties pay hourly rates to private attorneys to represent indigent felony defendants. They are Amite, Franklin, Issaquena, Jefferson, Leflore, Sharkey, Stone, Tallahatchie, Walthall, Warren, Wilkinson and Yalobusha.

The remaining 63 counties provide counsel to indigent felony defendants through appointed private attorneys paid a flat fee to represent an unlimited number of indigent felony defendants.

The report’s authors noted that the report “does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mississippi Public Defender Task Force or the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.”

Research for the report was funded by the U. S. Department of Justice through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Answering Gideon’s Call: National Assistance to Improve the Effectiveness of Right to Counsel Services.

Questions about report methodology should be directed to Sixth Amendment Center Executive Director David Carroll, 617-512-4946 or

The Public Defender Task Force was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 2000. Its duties are to make a comprehensive study of the needs by circuit court districts for state-supported indigent defense counsel, examining existing public defender programs, including indigent defense provided in the youth courts; study approaches taken by other states in the implementation and costs of state-supported indigent criminal and delinquency cases; and study the relationship between presiding circuit court and youth court judges and the appointment of criminal and delinquency indigent defense counsel.

Other members of the Task Force are: Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell; Kevin Lackey, director, Administrative Office of Courts; District Attorney Hal Kittrell, Mississippi Prosecutor Association; Special Assistant Attorney General Jerrolyn Owens; Demetrice Williams, Public Defenders Association; Jennie Eichelberger, Mississippi Bar; Tanisha Gates, Magnolia Bar; Steve Gray, Mississippi Association of Supervisors; Rep. Mark Baker; Rep. John Read; Sen. Hob Bryan; and Sen. Eugene “Buck” Clarke.