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Since April, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights has been piggybacking indigent defense reforms on a Fulton County, Ga., jail settlement designed to improve health care for HIV-positive inmates. On Monday, center attorneys filed a separate suit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, broadening the scope of the current jail settlement to include the county’s 10 municipalities and their mayors, including Atlanta, and the membership of the Fulton County Tripartite Indigent Defense Committee. That suit, filed on behalf of the county’s indigent inmates, seeks to force the county and municipalities to provide adequate and timely legal counsel to indigent misdemeanor offenders who, according to the claim, often languish for weeks in jail without seeing an attorney. Smith v. Fulton County, No.102-cv-2664 (N.D. Ga. Sept. 30, 2002). The suit asks the court to order Fulton County and its municipalities to create and implement a program that will provide competent and timely counsel to indigents, and force the jurisdictions to provide the necessary funding. Center attorneys — including director Stephen B. Bright, Marion D. Chartoff and Alexander Rundlet — have been joined in the litigation by Edward T.M. Garland and Donald F. Samuel of Atlanta’s Garland, Samuel & Loeb and Albert M. Pearson III of Moraitakis, Kushel & Pearson, also of Atlanta. The Southern Center attorneys have been pushing officials at every level of Georgia government to provide adequate funding and counsel for indigent defense. In April, the issue surfaced in federal court as part of the 2-year-old jail case after center attorneys argued that the health of HIV-positive inmates was strained by overcrowding. Foster v. Fulton County, No. 1:99-cv-900 (N.D. Ga. April 16, 2002). One of the biggest contributors to overcrowding, center attorneys have argued, was the county’s jailing of indigent misdemeanor suspects who had no access to counsel. Their cases lingered on dockets for weeks while they remained behind bars. Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob of the Northern District of Georgia subsequently ordered the county to take immediate steps to improve indigent defense. The settlement agreement, Bright acknowledged at the time, became a vehicle for the center’s indigent defense battle. Shoob likely will preside over the new claim. County Attorney Overtis Hicks “O.V.” Brantley said she believes that “to the extent [Bright] is attempting to address indigent defense issues, I do think it’s appropriate to address it as a separate lawsuit.” The county, she said, has moved to dismiss the Foster case, arguing that it has improved conditions of its HIV-positive inmates — the underlying basis of the case — and complied with the terms of the settlement agreement. Brantley said the new complaint “just makes the issues easier and cleaner to deal with. The Foster case, in my perspective, was becoming unwieldy. … People providing medical care don’t know anything about indigent defense.” Bright said Monday that the center filed the second suit as “a safety net” to preserve the indigent right-to-counsel issues should Foster be discharged. In addition, Bright said, the jail suit had targeted only Fulton County. “One of the problems in Foster was that we did not have all the municipalities,” he said. Shoob had ordered the county to meet with city officials and to include them in efforts to provide indigent defense to misdemeanor detainees. Fulton officials did so, Bright said. “Some municipalities have been very cooperative. Some have not,” he said. “This way all the municipalities are involved in the lawsuit. We can deal with these problems more holistically.” Fulton County has been unable to comply with Shoob’s most recent orders regarding counsel for indigent detainees because the cities were not parties to Foster. According to the suit, none of the cities, except Atlanta, operates a pretrial services program. Many do not provide attorneys for indigents at preliminary or committal hearings. And Atlanta, according to Bright, is proposing financial cutbacks for its public defender’s office because “the mayor is trying desperately to balance the books.”

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