(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge has ordered four central Mississippi counties to appoint public defenders for arrestees when they are detained instead of jailing them for months without providing legal counsel, civil rights groups said on Wednesday.
The order accompanies the settlement of a federal class action lawsuit challenging one county’s practice of detaining people who cannot afford a lawyer for as long as a year without formal charges and appointment of counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center said in a statement.
The settlement and court order require Scott, Neshoba, Newton and Leake counties to hire a chief public defender, a rarity in rural Mississippi, to ensure that defense lawyers no longer serve at judges’ whims, the statement said. The chief public defender, not judges, would supervise all public defenders, the statement said.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office handled the case, did not respond to a request for comment.
The ACLU and MacArthur Center sued Scott County in 2014 on behalf of Josh Bassett and Octavious Burks, who were detained there for eight and 10 months, respectively, without being indicted or being appointed a lawyer.
Unlike in federal courts and most other states, Mississippi places no limit on how long a person can be held in jail before prosecutors get an indictment. Obtaining an indictment in the four counties often takes up to a year, the statement said.
The order, issued this week by U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, mandates that the four counties, which make up Mississippi’s Eighth Circuit Court district, appoint public defenders at the time people are arrested.
Mark Duncan, who was sued while district attorney for the four counties and is now a circuit judge, said by telephone that he was unaware of the settlement.
Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Steve Orlofsky