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Mississippi Courts Won’t Say How They Provide Lawyers for Poor Defendants

In 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court’s then-Chief Justice William Waller Jr. helped mandate that judges throughout the state explain in writing how they deliver on their duty to provide poor criminal defendants with a lawyer.

He hoped the rule would spur improvements in Mississippi’s patched-together public defense system, regarded by many legal experts as among the worst in the country.

Now, six years after the rule went into effect, only one of the 23 circuit court districts in the state has responded. The 22nd Circuit Court in southwest Mississippi became the first to comply this summer, according to the Supreme Court’s docket.

The requirement was part of a push to move “toward a statewide system,” said Waller, who retired a couple of years after it went into effect. He said he’s partly responsible for not enforcing it. “We should have started going court by court and asking them to show us their plans.”

Public defense systems across the country are overburdened and underfunded, but Mississippi stands out. Nationally, it ranks last in how much money it spends per capita on public defense, according to the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit that advocates for a robust defense for the indigent — those who can’t afford their own lawyer. Mississippi is one of only eight states that rely on local officials to fund and deliver almost all public defense for people facing trial, according to the center.

Mississippi has long failed to monitor or evaluate local courts to see whether they’re delivering that defense, which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Without such oversight, no one knows whether all the state’s courts, especially smaller ones in the vast rural stretches of the state, are doing the job that’s required of them.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, ProPublica and The Marshall Project have identified courts that aren’t following the state Supreme Court’s rules on public defense, including judges who fail to appoint lawyers as early as required, or who deny counsel to defendants for inappropriate reasons. Even once appointed, some lawyers say they do little for defendants and that

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