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Friday, April 9, 2010 - 8:12pm

Defender Overhaul Still Under Dome

Governor Sonny Perdue and state lawmakers are considering options that could transfer a large chunk of responsibility for indigent defense back to Georgia's counties.

The state took over indigent defense seven years ago because the old county-run system didn't protect the rights of poor people accused of crimes.

The county-run system was uneven.

Wealthier counties represented the accused better than poor counties.

But now, lawmakers are now considering giving about 20% of indigent defense cases back to counties.


One of the big reasons for the proposal is that the state finds it difficult to budget for so-called "conflict cases," where lawyers might have conflicts of interest.

These cases are highly variable, both in number and predictability.

Some lawmakers want to push responsibility for those cases back on counties.

And that could have a huge impact on already strained county budgets.

Lawmakers also want to avoid the possibility of another Brian Nichols trial.

Nichols, convicted in the 2005 Atlanta courthouse killing case, couldn't afford a lawyer and racked up legal bills topping $2 million dollars.

Lawmakers want to get a better handle on the cost of public defense.

Chatham County Public Defender Michael Edwards says, Georgia has a legal imperative to provide a quality defense for all.

"It's also an ethical and moral imperative that we provide the level of representation that people are entitled to no matter what their financial situation," Edwards says. "And so, no matter what our financial situation."

Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights says, moving cases back to counties would be a step back for the constitutional right of poor people accused of crimes.

"We believe that the old system of providing indigent defense fell far short of its constitutional obligations," Totonchi says. "Many people accused of crimes were not appointed attorneys in the way that they are entitled."

The state-run system itself has been successfully sued by inmates alleging inadequate defense.

Lawmakers were to get another proposal on the issue this week.

But with the legislative session drawing to a close, it's seen as unlikely they would act this year

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