In another step to reform its municipal court, the city recently announced it is looking for contract attorneys to handle indigent defense. In the past, attorneys represented an entire docket of defendants who were unable to afford an attorney, but along with this announcement the city plans to trim the workload.
Municipal Court Administrator Nathan Emmorey said the size of those dockets and the number of indigent defendants vary from day to day.
“It depends,” he said. “It could be a couple … or 100.”
Indigent defendants, or those who cannot afford to hire an attorney, make up the “vast majority” of cases in municipal court, Emmorey said.
In addition to creating a workload issue, Emmorey said having attorneys represent an entire docket of indigent defendants causes conflicts.
“If you’re assigned to defend a docket, you see a docket, not the person you’re defending,” he said. “You end up representing the judge and the court.”
In other words, Emmorey said, attorneys who represent an entire docket might see a case differently from attorneys who represent someone as part of an individual case. Under the current system, an attorney might represent a defendant for an arraignment, but another attorney would be appointed at trial, Emmorey said, because attorneys represent dockets on individual days.
“Now, at an arraignment, we’ll have attorneys who represent [indigent defendants] going forward,” Emmorey said. “We’re working to provide the best representation the city can afford to people who can’t afford representation.”
In all, the city is looking to hire five contract attorneys. Four will work inside the courthouse on two-and-a-half day rotations, Emmorey said. The fifth attorney will work inside Mobile Metro Jail and attend jail hearings three days a week.
Two attorneys will work inside municipal court each day. Each day’s docket will be split in half, with attorneys representing indigent clients based upon the first letter of their surnames, Emmorey said. For instance, defendants with last names starting with “A” through “L” will be assigned to one attorney, while names starting with “M” through “Z” would be assigned to another, Emmorey said.
“The attorneys can look at the docket and know who they’ll represent,” he said. “The attorney will own the case from arraignment to disposition.”
During the two-and-a-half day window those attorneys aren’t in court, they will have time to work on and build cases for the defendant they’re assigned.
“The expectation is the attorney will meet with [the defendant] outside court and build a case,” Emmorey said. “It will radically change the quality of representation for those who can’t afford it.”
The new system is another step the city has taken to ensure it is punishing crime and not poverty, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said in a statement.
“Everyone deserves fair representation,” he said. “I applaud the Municipal Court for their innovative reforms that will save costs and improve services. Every defendant will finally have the opportunity to develop a relationship with an attorney who truly has the defendant’s best interests at heart.”
As for reforming indigent defense, Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Micah West said the idea of public defenders’ offices should spread statewide. Currently, there are only two.
He said allowing the judge to appoint attorneys to indigent defense cases can make it seem like the attorney is working for the judge, or the court, rather than the defendant. While Mobile’s new program falls short of creating a new office, it does take the appointing authority out of the hands of the judge and helps to allow the attorney to work for a defendant rather than for the court.
“I’m not familiar with the work, but any time a city is investing in indigent defense … it’s a good thing,” West said. “It ensures a defendant’s constitutional rights are better defended. It’s something we are pleased with.”
Earlier this year, the court reformed its bail practice as well. Under new guidelines, municipal judges starting releasing defendants on recognizance bonds rather than cash bonds. This practice was changed to prevent defendants from being punished with jail time because they couldn’t afford those bonds.
Micah West, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, called Mobile an early adopter of a set of procedures now employed by some 50 municipal courts statewide.
“We came up with a set of model procedures and sent letters to courts across the state,” he said. “A lot of courts have now adopted these procedures and it’s had a really dramatic impact.”
Mobile has been a model for the others, West said, as the Metro Jail population has dropped by 45 percent since the beginning of the program in January until last month.
“The reason why is very few people in municipal court ever get sentenced to jail,” West said. “The only people in jail are the ones who couldn’t afford bond.”
Before the program was enacted, defendants who couldn’t pay bond were spending up to 30 days in jail and were being sentenced to time served, West said. Now, the majority are going home immediately.
The 50 cities statewide that have now adopted the program represent 40 percent of the state’s population. West said the goal is to have the program expand statewide. When defendants too poor to pay for bail sit in jail until their next court date, it “turns the idea of justice upside down.”
“The innocent, who have not been proven guilty, are in jail before being proven guilty,” West said.
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