“I am not going to be your attorney”

When Eric Wyatt told his public defender that he was mistakenly being thrown back into jail after already serving his time, his public defender cut him off with those eight words. He would spend over three months incarcerated before another public defender urged him to take a plea deal to serve 10 years in prison for a crime he already served time for. It would be another week, 110 days in total, before Wyatt would be set free.

Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit represents just one example of the breakdown of judicial governance in a time of mass incarceration, enormous social inequality, and budgetary austerity:

By 2003, when the first lawsuit against the Cordele criminal-justice system was filed—a class action on behalf of all poor people accused of crimes—almost half of the circuit’s indigent defendants were pleading guilty without ever consulting a lawyer, and, according to court documents, the judges were allowing them to negotiate their sentences directly with the prosecutors. At the same time, defendants who asked for court-appointed counsel often regretted it. The circuit had just two part-time attorneys to fulfill its constitutional requirement; for a flat fee each handled all felony and misdemeanor appointments, probation revocation hearings, and appeals for two whole counties. In 2001, for example, each of these part-time lawyers was handling about 330 felonies, which was twice the number of felonies recommended by the Georgia Supreme Court in guidelines intended for full-time lawyers. And both of the Cordele defenders had significant legal practices on the side. One was also a municipal court judge, as likely to see a defendant from the bench as from a defense table.

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