On Jan. 1, more than 40 judicial circuits in Georgia joined a statewide public defender system created two years ago to improve the quality of justice, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is something that needed to be done,” said Bebe Heiskell, Walker County’s sole commissioner. “If you’re charged with committing a crime, it doesn’t mean you’re guilty of it. If you’re indigent, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a chance at achieving justice.”
The statewide defender system took more than a year to set up. Lawmakers established it after learning that defendants often sat in jail for months without seeing a lawyer. Some courts operated like assembly lines, with defendants pleading guilty after seeing their appointed lawyers for only a few minutes. Mike Mears, director of the new Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said, “Things are going well,” Mears said. “The system is working, for the most part, the way we intended.” John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison & Jail Project and a critic of the old system, said he is cautiously optimistic the new one will work. In Fulton County, circuit defender Vernon Pitts said his office cannot handle the indigent caseload. Some private lawyers must be appointed to keep his office from being overwhelmed; last year, his office was involved in nearly 16,000 cases.