Mississippi Supreme Court mandate will ensure criminal defendants have continuity of representation

Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 8:11 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Some Mississippi counties were letting criminal defendants wait in jail without a lawyer. A mandate from the state’s high court will block that practice come July 1.

”Everybody’s seen Law and Order,” noted Russ Latino who prompted the rule change. “They know that when Lennie Briscoe tells people that they have the right to an attorney and they assume that what that means is that you have a right to an attorney from the time you get arrested through trial. In practice, that’s not what was happening in Mississippi.”

Instead, there was what was called a “dead zone.” In some counties, counsel was dropped in that period between the initial appearance and the indictment, leaving defendants who couldn’t afford private counsel to often wait for months and sometimes years in jail. Russ Latino asked the State Supreme Court to consider changing the procedure for appointing those public defenders.

“I filed the motion. I don’t know, it’s been 10-11 months ago, back when I was president of Empower Mississippi,” added Latino.

The court ruled unanimously that this “dead zone” practice has to end. Cliff Johnson is director of the MacArthur Justice Center of the University of Mississippi School of Law and was among those supportive of the change.

“So now in Mississippi, for the first time ever, those who are assigned public defenders will have continuous representation without any gap,” described Johnson.

Johnson says there’s evidence of the benefits.

“New Orleans had the dead zone problem,” he explained. “And when they ended that some years ago, it saved time for the courts and saved money for those people who are paying for the incarceration. Most importantly, it protected the liberty of those people who were locked up.”

Supporters of the rule change stretched across the political spectrum. State Public Defender Andre de Gruy thinks that speaks to an important point.

“A recognition that, that we cannot in the 21st century have people sitting in jail without legal counsel,” he said.

He points out that some counties are already providing a continuity of representation.

“There is going to be a set-off,” he described. “So, the county is going to see people spending less time in their jail, they’re not going to get sued, or the likelihood of being sued is going to go way down.”

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