ACLU: South Carolina defendants lack legal representation in summary courts

ACLU: South Carolina defendants lack legal representation in summary courts

[JURIST] South Carolina’s summary courts, which try and convict defendants for low-level offenses, are failing to provide legal representation and other constitutional safeguards, according to a study [text, PDF] released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website]. According to the study, summary court judges are not required to have law degrees, and police officers may serve as prosecutors. The state needs at least $10 million to properly fund its public defenders, and since last year municipalities can not use their judicial circuits’ public defenders unless they contribute more funds. Due to the lack of proper funding, the state has instructed judges to inform defendants of available free representation only when they go to trial. Most poor defendants in summary court proceedings have no legal representation, and they often serve the maximum jail sentence of 30 days because they cannot afford to pay even low bail amounts. The ACLU stressed that poor defendants are effectively being victimized for their inability to receive legal representation and pay bail fines, thereby having a detrimental affect on their jobs and families. The ACLU plans [Post and Courier report] to release a new study later this year that provides more data regarding this statewide issue. The study was gathered by collecting observations from the state’s 400 summary courts from late 2014 to July 2015.

Reform in state courts and prisons had been a matter of ongoing concern in the US. Last month the US Department of Justice (DOJ) sent [JURIST report] letters to states urging them to stop using procedural routines and hefty fines to profit off poor defendants and victimize them for their inability to pay. In February the Supreme Court of California ruled [JURIST report] that Governor Jerry Brown can put his plan to ease prison overcrowding on the ballot this November. In January the US Supreme Court ruled that a landmark decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles should apply retroactively [JURIST report]. In August the Department of Justice reached a settlement [JURIST report] with Los Angeles prisons on mentally ill inmate care. Last May Human Rights Watch released [JURIST report] a report stating that mentally disabled prisoners experience “unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force” at the hands of prison staff across the US.