State Supreme Court rules to close gap in legal representation

COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) –  Mississippi Supreme Court ruling will mean major changes in how criminal defendants are represented during the legal process.

Currently, defendants, most of them poor, who have court-appointed defense attorneys lose them after their initial court appearance, when a judge decides if they will be released on bond before trial.

In many parts of the state, they don’t get access to a lawyer again, until after they are indicted.

If they don’t make a bond that can mean months or even years in jail, without anyone working their case before a trial.

A local District Attorney and Public Defender explained the changes this means for the State.

The State Supreme Court’s ruling closes the gap in legal representation for defendants, giving lawyers a chance to more actively work on their client’s cases.

Lowndes County Public Defender, Donna Smith said it could also have benefits to the State and victims.

“It’s a great first step but we need a whole lot more steps,” said Smith.

The State Supreme Court’s ruling could mean a major change to Mississippi’s criminal justice system.

Throughout the state, many poor defendants serve extended periods of jail time because they do not have an attorney to advocate for them between their initial appearance and an indictment. In some cases, that can mean years in jail with no one working on their case.

16th Judicial District District Attorney Scott Colom said this ruling changes that.

“What’s important is the Supreme Court stepped up and decided to fix a problem in our criminal justice system that will make the system better overall. People have important 6th Amendment rights and it’s also important for the state to have people, and lawyers to communicate with people who are charged with crimes,” said Colom.

Colom said the ruling also benefits the state and victims.

“In addition to being beneficial to the system, I think it is also beneficial to the victims because it means that we will be able to identify any mistakes with the cases in a fashion where we can correct them and make sure victims are properly notified and given the opportunity to have their cases prosecuted in a timely fashion,” said Colom.

Donna Smith works as a Public Defender for Lowndes County.

She knows firsthand, how long it can take for a defendant to get appointed an attorney.

Closing that gap in the legal system will allow her more time to mount a defense for her clients.

“It gives me the opportunity to get involved at an earlier stage. While the evidence is still fresh and although my access to that evidence from the state is limited at this point we still can’t get discovery until indictment but at least with what my client is telling me I can start an investigation and see what I can find,” said Smith.

While this is a progressive move for Mississippi, Smith said there is still much work to be done.

“We’re pleased with the first step but there are more steps out there that we need to take and one is limiting the time in which the state can take to make an indictment to indict someone,” said Smith.

The new ruling will go into effect in July.

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