Courts Ignore the Law, and South Carolina’s Poor Go to Jail

October 12, 2017

Larry Marsh has a history of mental illness and drug addiction. Homeless, he has no place to go. The police in this city have arrested or cited him more than 270 times for trespassing. In December, they got him four times in one day.

For this misdemeanor offense, Mr. Marsh, 58, has repeatedly served time in jail, and was even sent to prison. Not once has he had a lawyer.

Being represented by a lawyer is a fundamental right, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment and affirmed by the Supreme Court, which has ruled that anyone facing imprisonment, even for a minor offense, is entitled to legal counsel. But the promise has been a fragile one, with repeated complaints that people without means are stuck with lawyers who are incompetent, underfunded or grossly overworked.

In municipal courts that handle low-level crimes, poor defendants can face a worse problem: no lawyer at all. Recent reports detail a failure to provide lawyers in Nashville and Miami-Dade courtrooms, and in 2015, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held hearings on the issue, saying the right to a lawyer was frequently ignored in misdemeanor cases.

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