People jailed in Scott County, Mississippi, say they’ve been “indefinitely detained” and “indefinitely denied counsel.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the county in federal court on Wednesday claiming that because the state has no limit on how long a prosecutor can take to indict a person they can be locked up indefinitely.
“In Scott County, felony indictments are only issued three times a year, after a grand jury convenes to formally charge defendants with their crimes,” the ACLU says. “If you're lucky, you might wait two months to hear about your charges. If you're unlucky, you're put off until the next session. That's at least another four months in jail.”
The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center, is filed on behalf of Octavious Burks and others. Burks, 37, has been locked up for 10 months and still hasn’t been assigned an attorney. He has spent a total of more than three years behind bars without formal charges, according to the ACLU.
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Part of the issue stems from the public defender system which is funded on a county to county basis. If those costs are kept low, defendants won’t have access to a public defender for long periods of time.
The complaint also says “arbitrary” bail amounts are set for defendants without assessing whether they could possibly pay.
Joshua Bassett, 31, has been in jail for 9 months in lieu of $100,000 bail after he was arrested for grand larceny and possession of meth. He hasn’t been assigned an attorney and Scott County Senior Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon says he won’t appoint one until Bassett is formally indicted.
“This is clearly not what we mean by due process, and this is not what we mean by justice,” Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles told the New York Times. “It doesn’t have to be unique to be absurd.”
“A judge has the power to appoint a lawyer anytime,” said Robert B. McDuff, a Mississippi criminal defense lawyer.
“My sense is that this goes on in most places in Mississippi,” he said. “Poor people are sitting in jail for weeks and even months before they ever see a lawyer.”
"It's time for Scott County to stop illegally robbing people of their lives," the ACLU said in a statement.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / my_southborough, Wikipedia