SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — If you’re accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to a lawyer under the Sixth Amendment.
The Southern District of Georgia is one of just three federal court districts without a public defender’s office. It spans 43 counties covering Brunswick, Augusta and Savannah. Dr. Chad Posick, a criminal justice professor at Georgia Southern University, explained without access to free representation, defendants face a host of problems — including worse outcomes.
“Because most people do not know the law, they need someone there to advocate for them throughout the whole entire process,” Posick said.
Posick said it’s unusual for a jurisdiction to not have a public defender’s office and isn’t sure why the Southern District currently doesn’t have one. But he said it can lead to a cycle of issues, specifically for people facing socioeconomic disadvantages.
“Not having someone to represent them kind of exacerbates that cycle,” Posick said. “They’re more likely to plead guilty to charges they’re not guilty of, they’re more likely to have higher levels of bail set, of fines set, fees in the court process.”
While some defendants may be able to afford to hire a private attorney, others are left having to take out loans or represent themselves in court.
Sen. Jon Ossoff is pushing new legislation which would require all judicial districts to have a public defender’s office, a position typically funded by taxpayers.
“It’s important to have those public defender’s offices, but it’s also equally important to make sure they’re well-funded and well-staffed to make sure you’re providing good counsel to those individuals that need an attorney,” Posick said.
Ossoff said the bill, called the Access to Justice Act of 2022, is ultimately about upholding the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. It is backed by several legal, law enforcement and civil rights organizations, including the National District Attorneys Association.