Arrested And Forgotten

It seems impossible to a New York criminal defense lawyer that this could happen, as there is a law, CPL §180.80, that requires a defendant arrested for a felony to either be indicted, given a probable cause hearing or released within 120 (which ends up being 144, because the Legislature forgot about weekends) hours of arraignment.  Is there nothing similar in Mississippi?

Octavious Burks has been in the Scott County Jail since Nov. 18, 2013. Joshua Bassett has been there since Jan. 16, 2014.

A grand jury has yet to indict either man.

They are far from alone. In jails across the state, some are held behind bars more than a year without ever being indicted.

“This is another poor man’s curse in Mississippi,” said J. Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “It sounds like something that happens in a Third World country.”

This bizarre situation is exacerbated by the fact that Mississippi has no statewide public defender system, and lawyers for indigent defendants aren’t appointed until a defendant is arraigned on an indictment.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the MacArthur Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of these men against Scott County officials, saying the men have been “indefinitely denied counsel.”

It sounds more as if they have been indefinitely detained, as they are arrested, held and forgotten.

The lawsuit points out that because the state of Mississippi doesn’t impose a limit on how long a district attorney has to present a case to the grand jury or how long a defendant may be held in jail without indictment, a defendant can be held in jail indefinitely.

While the lack of providing counsel upon initial arraignment, where bail is set, certainly is a significant part of this problem, it’s unclear how Mississippi’s system comports with a number of other issues of constitutional magnitude.  What about speedy trial?  What about the right to present a defense, as the ability of a defendant to investigate, obtain evidence, is lost during that first year or two in jail awaiting indictment.

Radley Balko points out that Mississippi isn’t exactly at the cutting edge of concerning itself with the defendant’s constitutional rights.

I’ve spent a lot of time reporting in Mississippi over the years. To my knowledge, all Mississippi counties and most of the larger towns do have someone designated as the “public defender.” The problem is that in all but a few places, the job is only part time. In some areas it pays just [a] few thousand dollars per year. So most of the state’s public defenders earn their living in private practice. You can imagine how that might affect the quality of the representation they provide. I should also add that I’ve met a few dedicated and terrific public defenders in the state. They do exist here and there, but they exist in spite of the system, not because of it.

An obvious problem is the plague of Gideon throughout the nation, that it’s expensive to provide counsel to indigent defendants and it’s money that never served to get a politician elected to office.  Sure, it’s expensive to warehouse presumptively innocent people indefinitely as well, but inexplicably, people don’t seem to mind paying for prisons nearly as much.

But this doesn’t seem to be solely a right to counsel problem.  Where are the criminal procedure laws that make the indefinite detention of pre-indictment defendants impossible?  Where is the system that compels a prosecutor to indict or release?  How is it possible that a guy can be tossed in jail and forgotten?

“They go to jail,” she said. “They lose their jobs.”

At the end of nine months or a year when the defendant is finally indicted, “he says to his lawyer, ‘I just want to get out,'” she said. “There is tremendous coercion to plead guilty to just get out of jail. You can’t blame them.”

Clearly, a system that can leave a defendant in jail before any opportunity to challenge his arrest serves to punish first, convict later. In the scheme of a defendant’s best interests, many will seize the opportunity to plead guilty to some variation of time served just to get out.  The prosecutor scores another win and society is safe, even though the impetus to plead guilty has nothing to do with guilt, but with the fact that the defendant will never get back those months, years, in jail, and risking even more imprisonment is nuts.

As Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center says, it sounds like some third world country. That country would be ours. How is it possible that even in the most rural county of the most backward state can there be a system where no safeguards exist so that a person isn’t held indefinitely pre-indictment, pre-trial, without counsel?

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at NYU Law School’s Brennan Center:

“This is nothing less than historic,” said Attorney General Holder. “Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.  And thanks to a robust and growing national consensus – a consensus driven not by political ideology, but by the promising work that’s underway – we are bringing about a paradigm shift, and witnessing a historic sea change, in the way our nation approaches these issues.”

While these statistics show progress at the federal level, there is similar progress at the state level.

Not in Mississippi, apparently.  Have you been there?  Perhaps the AG needs to get out of Washington, D.C., and New York for that matter, and take a trip to Mississippi to see just how his historic reforms are working out on the state level.  Or does the situation of Octavious Burks and Joshua Bassett not align with the great success in achieving a better functioning criminal justice system, and best be forgotten lest they screw up the otherwise warm and fuzzy rhetoric?

14 thoughts on “Arrested And Forgotten

  1. Bill Robelen

    Living in Mississippi, and reading MS Supreme Court decisions for enlightenment, it has bothered me that there is effectively no right to a speedy trial in Mississippi. I do not know how it is in other states, but in Mississippi there are cases where a person has sat in jail more than two years waiting for trial. This person did everything a defendant is supposed to do, demanded a speedy trial, but the MS Supreme Court still found no violation of the right to a speedy trial because they found no prejudice to the defendant. It is for reasons like this that I believe the standard Barker analysis must go and be limited only to the first two factors. “What is the length of the delay?,” and “What is the reason for the delay?”

    1. SHG Post author

      The Barker v. Wingo analysis relates to constitutional speedy trial. Most states and the feds have a statutory speedy trial restriction as well, which is based on a (relatively) specific period with exclusions from the calculus.

      This is a much more concrete way of addressing speedy trial. No matter how constitutional speedy trial is formulated, it remains far too vague to provide concrete guidance for the sake of the poor schmuck sitting in jail forgotten.

      1. Bill Robelen

        Unfortunately, in Mississippi, violations of the speedy trial statute are judged by the same standard as violations of the constitutional right. The courts use the same analysis and reach the same result.

        1. SHG Post author

          That was one the points of the post, that the deficit isn’t just counsel, but that your criminal procedure laws suck and have huge gaps in them.

  2. Jim Tyre

    Perhaps the AG needs to get out of Washington, D.C., and New York for that matter, and take a trip to Mississippi to see just how historic his reforms are working out on the state level.

    It seems that Holder will have plenty of time to do so. Apparently, he will be announcing his resignation later today.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Enlighten the cheap seats?

    So if I get arrested for riding my tricycle down the wrong side of the street while selling bootleg Britney Spears CD’s to raise funds for some fortified wine, crackers, and cheese in Mississippi I will still get an initial appearance within 48 hours or so unless I am busted on the weekend correct?

    But then my wait begins to be arraigned on an indictment unless I can make bail beforehand and my wait to be arraigned on an indictment where I will be formally appointed counsel if I can’t afford my own in the interim can take a long, long time.

    If I have this correct, all I really want to know is who the FuCk are the judges in Mississippi that wouldn’t look through my file during my arraignment and notice that I have been sitting in jail for eight or nine months and then immediately ask the prosecuting attorney if he or she thinks the business end of the gavel in his or her hands will fit up their rectum without lube?

    Not looking good for the legal guild in Mississippi, not looking good at all. I don’t think I will ever listen to Mississippi Half-Step in the same way again either. BTW, what the fuck do they talk about during Mississippi BAR association conferences?

    P.S. You are much, much to kind to the lad who has been heading up the DOJ for the last six years.

    P.S.S. “What about a speedy trial?” Mississippi had a look in Lee vs State in 2000. Interesting reading but my vantage point from the cheap seats is lacking and I can’t understand the parts that I spilled beer on and there are lots of peanut shells.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Well I have always wanted to visit Mississippi. You leave me no choice. Looks like I am going to have to go crash the next Mississippi State BAR conference and do some mingling.

  4. Jane

    I once called a court clerk in Jackson, Mississippi, to see about getting an initial appearance for a client who had been in jail for more than 48 hours. I told the clerk that the constitution requires it be done within 48 hours. She responded, “the constitution allows the prosecutor’s kids to be sick, doesn’t it?” I didn’t bother to tell her that it actually did not. I just sat in the courtroom and waited for the judge to finish everything else he had. But I’ve been practicing here for 27 years and there are counties where some arrestees wait years before coming to anyone’s attention.

  5. melissa

    I have a brother who has been incarcerated 440 days today (in Travis County), and isn’t set to be in front of a judge until the end of October – all because of a lie told by a bitter ex. Fortunately we have a paid attorney for him, but the stories he has told of most in there with him, who don’t …. very troubling.

    1. SHG Post author

      After 440 days, I hope your paid attorney is doing what he’s been paid to do. It seems time for your brother to assist in his own defense from the outside.

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