October 17, 2019
S.C. Lawyers Weekly
Municipal courts throughout South Carolina should ensure indigent defendants are provided with legal counsel after a settlement was reached by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, the ACLU, Nelson Mullins, and the Town of Bluffton and City of Beaufort.
As part of the settlement agreement, both municipalities will implement changes to their municipal court policies and practices that will allow for legal representation for defendants facing incarceration who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Municipal courts are also required to notify defendants facing a possible jail sentence, both orally and in writing, that they have the right to an attorney. And unless a defendant waives his or her rights, municipal courts cannot conduct a trial in absentia without counsel.
Columbia partner Stuart Andrews represented the firm in the class action and told S.C. Lawyers Weekly he was hopeful that municipal courts statewide will comply with the settlement and provide counsel to defendants. He said this case is an example of the need in South Carolina for comprehensive changes to the criminal justice system.
“The exposure that unrepresented defendants face is really like a gateway drug: It’s an introduction into incarceration and periods of confinement that have resulted in many of the things that have defined problems with mass incarceration in our state and in our nation,” Andrews said. “And if we can find ways to more successfully divert folks out of jails and prisons then we think we could begin to turn the corner on a problem that we’re only beginning to recognize.”
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