Mississippi is the only state in the country where indigent individuals accused of committing crimes are not represented by attorneys before they are indicted. Those who are facing charges are represented by public defenders when they are arraigned, and then they can spend months or even years behind bars as they wait to be indicted. During this time, they are not represented by attorneys seeking to have their bonds reduced or the charges against them dismissed.
The Sixth Amendment Center
Groups calling for criminal law reform have criticized the way indigent defendants are treated in Mississippi. Poor defendants spend years waiting to be indicted because prosecutors do not have to worry about deadlines, and defense attorneys do not put much effort into these cases because they are paid flat fees. When lawmakers asked the Sixth Amendment Center to evaluate the indigent defense services in Mississippi, the group submitted a scathing report that called for more accountability and stronger oversight. That report was shelved.
The Mississippi Supreme Court
In February, a Mississippi Supreme Court committee released a proposed change to the rules of criminal procedure and asked for public comments. The proposed new rule would require indigent defendants to be represented by attorneys while they await indictment. On April 13, the state’s highest court approved the measure. The new rule will go into effect in July.
Deadlines are needed
This new rule ensures that indigent defendants will have access to legal representation while they sit behind bars waiting to be indicted, but it does nothing to speed up the process. The Sixth Amendment provides the right to a swift and public trial, but that right is denied to indigent defendants in Mississippi. Until prosecutors are required to meet strict deadlines, the wait for justice will continue to be long for indigent defendants in Mississippi.