South Carolina’s poor defendants are frequently put on trial without the benefit of legal representation in the state’s low-level criminal courts, reports a new study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The study also found that many of the poor don’t have attorneys present during bond hearings, which often results in maximum jail sentences before they are even convicted.
Much of the ACLU’s findings are based on anecdotal evidence, taken from attorneys’ experiences in many of South Carolina’s summary courts, including municipal and magistrate levels during 2014. This lack of public defenders for individuals who live below the poverty line is a nation-wide problem, but ACLU members found this trend particularly disturbing in South Carolina’s lower level criminal courts – a system where police officers often prosecute cases, judges are not obliged to have law degrees and jail sentences max out at 30 days.
Lack of attorneys part of systemic problem
The ACLU report honed in on underlying problems within South Carolina’s low level criminal courts, where judges routinely tell defendants of their right to free legal representation only when their cases are called to trial. For many indigent defendants, this crucial information comes too late.
“It’s a perfect storm of stuff that’s going on,” says Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU’s division in South Carolina. “The big missing piece is clear guidance to the courts as to what they must do. They’re kind of making it up as they go,” Dunn told The Post and Courtier.
Dunn tells The Post and Courier that state and municipal budgetary allowances are a big part of the problem — and the solution. In South Carolina, prosecutors are given three times more funding than public defenders. In 2015, for the very first time, the state’s cities were barred from tapping into their judicial circuit’s public attorneys unless those municipalities provided supplementary funding.
Poverty-stricken suffer repercussions without legal help
Without legal representation from a public defender, many of South Carolina’s poverty-stricken are left to stay in jail for maximum terms, powerless to come up with even small bail amounts. ACLU researchers noted one alarming case in Beaufort County where a homeless man spent one month behind bars — the maximum sentence — before going to trial, for trespassing at a McDonald’s.
For those who have families or employment, this same sort of unjust outcome can prove catastrophic.
Legal advocacy when you need it most
The justice system can be confusing and oppressive without advocacy from a knowledgeable attorney. If you’ve been charged with a crime, you need professional, compassionate representation by a lawyer who will protect your rights and freedom.
To speak with a respected South Carolina criminal defense attorney and appellate litigator, contact The Michael Jeffcoat Firm today.
Our offices are conveniently located in Lexington, South Carolina, where we provide services throughout neighboring counties including Richland, Orangeburg, Kershaw, Calhoun, Fairfield, Chester, Aiken and Lancaster County. For a free consultation, please call us toll free at 888-612-7523.
- The Post and Courier, In S.C.’s lowest criminal courts, the poor suffer without attorneys, study by ACLU, lawyers finds https://www.postandcourier.com/article/20160403/PC16/160409926/1177/in-sc-x2019-s-lowest-criminal-courts-the-poor-suffer-without-attorneys-aclu-finds
- ACLU South Carolina, https://www.aclusouthcarolina.org/