The ripple effects of Georgia's public defender shortage
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Jason Sheffield of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
A shortage of public defenders in Georgia is leaving attorneys overburdened and those accused of crimes waiting for a proper defense — and that wait can last for months. The problem has been long in the making and will take longer to solve. For a look at the extent of the problem, we turn now to Jason Sheffield. He's the former president and current board member of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: Let's start by unpacking who is harmed by a shortage like this. First off: the defendants. What happens when someone's accused of a crime and needs a public defender but either has trouble getting one or the — the public defender assigned to them has too many clients and maybe not enough time to focus on them?
Jason Sheffield: The person accused is absolutely at the first level of harm that we're experiencing statewide in the public defender system. But there's more than that. There's the judges who are harmed, and there's the system itself. If you think about, starting with the people who are accused, these are individuals who are indigent. When you are accused of a crime, the state brings all of their power, all of their investigative power, all of their authority against you. And it triggers certain rights for these people who are accused. To have someone be there when you're questioned, to have someone assist you when you're trying to get out of jail on bond, to have someone explain the charges to you — these are the basic fundamental rights that are being denied because the system's in crisis.
Peter Biello: You mentioned judges are harmed by this. Can you tell us how?
Jason Sheffield: A judge wants to do the right thing. Where you don't have adequate representation for persons accused of a crime who are indigent, the judges hear nothing from the other side, and the judges begin to wonder, "Am I getting the full story? Am I hearing the full truth?" Judges cannot make informed decisions without the help and assistance of a criminal defense lawyer.
Peter Biello: What resources do public defenders need now that perhaps they used to have but don't anymore?
Jason Sheffield: Being a public defender is a very challenging job for many reasons. It requires that you devote your time to people who don't have the resources to give you, as an attorney, to help in their defense. So you are totally reliant on the state, the Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) and/or the county to provide you with the resources so that you can do a good job. And what a good job looks like in the world of criminal defense is: an investigator, an office with printers and paper. Historically speaking, GPDC has partnered with the state and has partnered with the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to always do their best to fund and to educate these public defenders across the state. But something changed that so fundamentally undermined the efforts of public defenders that they began to feel unappreciated, unsupported, and then their offices were taken away. Then their printers were taken away. And paper was taken away. The camaraderie disappeared and people started to feel like they didn't have a home to build their case within to protect these people accused.
Peter Biello: And you're talking about public defenders across the state?
Jason Sheffield: I'm talking about public defenders across the state that have been financially supported by GPDC. Under new leadership, they started having things taken away, in a way that appeared to be politically motivated.
Peter Biello: Well, let me ask you, what political constituency would be pleased by that? Why is that a good thing for some people?
Jason Sheffield: Obviously, we're always concerned in Georgia about our budget. We're always concerned about programs, were concerned about protecting citizens. But there can be no more fundamental protection than a citizen's right and access to the courts and to an attorney. And so when you have the governor encouraging cuts and you have the director then making those cuts to an organization that is already underfunded, you begin to chip away at the spirit of the people who provide protections for indigent persons statewide.
Peter Biello: Lawmakers have discussed pay raises for some in the public defender world. Would that help?
Jason Sheffield: The current issue in Georgia's public defense system is that there aren't enough public defenders because they feel abused by the agency, the state agency that's traditionally supported them and help them. We would like to have our office back. We'd like to have a printer. We'd like to be able to work together and not from home. We would like our appellate division to not be decimated. Now that appellate division is back, but the appellate division was dismantled. And several lawyers who specialize in the type of issues that trial lawyers need to know as they're heading into trial — those lawyers were terminated. So you didn't have the backup. You didn't have the kind of information that was available before. It's as if the state agency expected a bridge to stay solid, but took away the pillars from underneath the bridge one by one and is surprised when that bridge collapses.
Peter Biello: For people accused of crimes and waiting so long for defense to become available — proper defense to become available — is there a short-term solution so that these people aren't waiting in jail for so long, like bringing lawyers out of retirement to quickly help address the issue, or something else I'm not thinking of? What do you think?
Jason Sheffield: The solution seems to be to start with the state and for the state to acknowledge — and by the state I mean GPDC — to acknowledge that they need to be properly funded and they need to lobby the Legislature for appropriate funding. If you look at, as an example, what's happened most recently with the ARPA funds, the rescue funds that had been given to Georgia in the tune of about $100 million — maybe a little bit more than that — 85 to 90% of that was given to prosecutors and judges. The rest of it was given to public defenders. So now prosecutors have more people to prosecute crimes. They have more victim advocates to assist with the victim issues in the case. And judges are ready to try cases. But it's like an entire lane of cars ready to start in the Indy 500 and none of them have tires. The tires, of course, are the public defenders that you need to make the system move forward — the cases move forward. Why did they only get a small percentage of those funds? I don't know. But that just shows an imbalance in the type of thinking that has become systemic in our Legislature and in our state funding agencies.
Note: We reached out to Omotayo Alli, the Executive Director of the Georgia Public Defender Council. Through a spokesman she declined our request. But the Georgia Public Defender Council did send a statement, part of which reads as follows: "Pre-2020, GPDC regularly furloughed attorneys statewide for weeks each year to maintain its budget. In 2020, the agency relocated to state-owned office space rather than furloughing attorneys, and there have been zero furloughs since Executive Director Alli’s appointment. We understand GACDL may be unhappy with GPDC as circumstances require us to bring training and professional development in-house and reinvest in our own capacity rather than contracting with private groups."