- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Mississippi county has agreed to appoint lawyers for poor defendants immediately after their arrest and to consider alternatives to money bail, settling one of a series of lawsuits by civil liberties groups nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate approved the settlement Tuesday, after lawyers for both sides reached an agreement in April. It also affects Leake, Neshoba and Newton counties, part of the same judicial circuit.

Two men sued in 2014, saying they had been held for months in the Scott County jail without a lawyer or bail. Plaintiffs Josh Bassett and Octavious Burks will receive money as part of the settlement. Will Allen, a lawyer for Scott County, declined Wednesday to say how much, saying supervisors in the four counties have not yet approved the payments.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center pursued the suit, alleging poor people are being unfairly jailed because they can’t afford bail. They also sought to change how Mississippi counties appoint public defender.

“In these four counties, thousands have had weeks, months, and even years of their lives stolen from them because they could not afford an attorney or purchase their freedom,” said Brandon Buskey with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “This settlement closes those trap doors for the poor.”

In this case and some other counties, judges didn’t appoint public defenders until someone was indicted, in an attempt to save money. That means that if a prisoner can’t post bail and if a district attorney doesn’t obtain an indictment quickly, the prisoner can spend a long stretch in jail, sometimes never facing an indictment. That’s what happened to Bassett and Burks, who were jailed in Scott County for eight and 10 months, respectively, without ever getting a lawyer.

“Such delay impermissibly risks creating a dual system of justice wherein only arrestees can afford counsel have meaningful access to the pretrial process, including preliminary and bail hearings, case investigation and plea negotiation,” the settlement said. Mississippi law already requires a lawyer’s immediate appointment, it said.

The Scott County settlement abolished the use of automatic bail amounts for certain crimes, a practice which has been the focus of lawsuits elsewhere. The idea is that judges should decide whether money bail is even necessary.

The four counties also agreed last year that people who were arrested would be automatically given a form to request a public defender, and that such lawyers would begin representing jailed people immediately. A chief public defender and two assistants were hired last year. Like in many other Mississippi counties, they are part-time lawyers who can handle other cases, but one has to be available at all times.

ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director Paloma Wu said she hopes the agreement will ensure public defenders will be able to aggressively represent their clients.

The ACLU has sued multiple states, trying to force increased funding for public defenders. Lawsuits against jailing indigent people have been brought in many places nationwide, including in the Mississippi cities of Jackson, Biloxi and Moss Point.

Allen said the settlement will benefit counties because it will reduce the number of jail inmates they pay for. He also said county leaders wanted to make sure local residents were represented by lawyers.

“That’s part of the reason we worked so hard on this settlement, to provide a model for others,” Allen said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy

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