State helps defend poor citizens -, Albany News, Weather, Sports

State helps defend poor citizens

July 1, 2004

Ben Hill County -- It took a lawsuit and outcry from the public, but it's finally here. Thursday, the first of the new statewide Defender offices opened in Ben Hill County. The new program is set to help counties make sure their poor citizens accused of a crime get a proper defense.

After more than a year of debate the state officially opened the doors to the first of the new state-wide Defender offices, a move they hope will help poor citizens get their fair day in court.

"There was a lawsuit filed by a group of individuals who challenged the way the indigent defense was being administered in this four county judicial system circuit,"says Michael Mears Director of Georgia Public Defenders.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit pointed out that there were only 2 part time public defenders in the circuit that includes Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox Counties, compared to 4 full time prosecutors. This year the state decided to overhaul the entire indigent defense program. This office will house state funded criminal defense lawyers for those who can not afford them. It's a prototype for offices that will soon open in 49 judicial circuits around the State

"By putting this office in place we now have three full time lawyers, two full time investigators and a full time office manager plus we will add another full time attorney in August," says Mears.

Ben Hill County officials say it was important for them to be the first to use the new program. Since they were a part of the problem, they also wanted to be a part of the solution.

"We wanted to make sure we were apart of the program so when they asked about it us we told them we are willing to do that," says Larry Davis of the Ben Hill Co. Commission.

Officials will evaluate this office closely for next three months to see what works and what doesn't. That information will be used in the openings of the new offices to make sure poor Georgia are given their fair day in court.

Defendants who use the new public defender office will not have to pay for their lawyer. They'll only be responsible for a $50 application fee.

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