Criminal Justice

Justice is dispensed quickly in misdemeanor courts; is there an 'assembly-line mentality'?

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Attorney General Eric Holder has complained that misdemeanor courts have almost an “assembly-line mentality” in which some defendants are denied lawyers and are “unnecessarily imprisoned.”

The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) notes Holder’s statement in a story examining misdemeanor courts, which are flooded with cases as a result of tough-on-crime laws. A 2011 study of Florida misdemeanor courts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that cases are often handled in three minutes or less, while in Detroit the average caseload requires cases to be processed at the rate of one every four minutes.

Misdemeanor defendants facing potential jail time have a right to a free lawyer if they can’t afford representation, but in some court systems lawyers are in short supply or are inundated with cases. Some estimate that only a quarter of defendants facing jail time are represented by a lawyer. The NACDL study of 1,600 misdemeanor cases in Florida found that more than one-third of the defendants didn’t have a lawyer at arraignment, and 80 percent pleaded guilty or no contest at that stage.

Judge Jeffrey Middleton of St. Joseph County, Mich., told the Wall Street Journal that if lawyers were appointed in “every rinky-dink misdemeanor case,” costs would balloon and “it would slow courts to a halt.”

The Wall Street Journal observed the process in a Houston courtroom, where a court-appointed defense lawyer was overheard talking to a 19-year-old client. According to the story, the lawyer told the client he represented a co-defendant who was pleading guilty, and he couldn’t ethically represent both men if they had different pleas. “Are you going to accept responsibility, be a man?” the lawyer reportedly asked.

The lawyer walked away from the client, returned and conferred before walking away again, and then returned a third time. The client agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to probation.

The client told the Wall Street Journal he had planned to plead guilty all along but he didn’t understand what the defense lawyer was saying. The lawyer told the newspaper he wasn’t trying to pressure his client. “I was just trying to explain to him his choices and their consequences,” he said.

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