Georgia’s ailing public defender system, once praised as a national model for providing legal representation to poor defendants, is now in a legal tug-of-war with critics who say it has failed to live up to its promise, reports the Associated Press. Lagging support from Georgia legislators and rounds of budget cuts have already led the system’s director to scale back programs and fire dozens of staffers. But it was the decision in June to close the 21-member Metro Atlanta Conflict Defender Office that triggered the legal battle.
Critics sued the system’s director. They will ask a Fulton County judge Thursday to force the office to stay open, arguing that the system is undergoing a “Walmartization” by firing full-time attorneys and replacing them with contract attorneys. “This would be a giant step back to what is supposed to be a bygone era in Georgia,” said Stephen Bright, the director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the legal challenge. It’s a painful fall for the public defender system, hailed in legal circles as groundbreaking when it was created in 2003 to replace the patchwork of systems across Georgia’s 159 counties.