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Sen. Ossoff Working to Guarantee Georgians’ Constitutional Right to Legal Counsel

Southern District of Georgia lacks a Federal public defender office

New legislation requires every judicial district to have a Federal defender office

New Yorker investigation last year detailed significant challenges defendants in Southern Georgia face to get effective counsel

Sen. Ossoff’s legislation backed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin and major law enforcement groups

Atlanta, Ga. — U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff is working to protect Georgians’ Constitutional right to an attorney, regardless of their ability to afford counsel.

Today Sen. Ossoff and Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA-04) introduced the Access to Justice Act of 2022, which would establish a public defender office in the Southern District of Georgia.

The Southern District of Georgia, which stretches from Augusta to Savannah and Brunswick and encompasses Dublin, Statesboro, and Waycross, is one of only three Federal districts nationwide that lacks a public defender office — making it challenging for defendants who cannot afford their own attorney to receive adequate assistance of counsel.

The bill will ensure that all judicial districts have a Federal public defender office or community defender organization to make real the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to assistance of counsel.

“This is about the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees every American access to a lawyer, but the Southern District of Georgia is one of just 3 Federal districts that does not offer a Federal defender to Americans who need one. My bill will uphold the Constitution and ensure every Georgian has access to counsel,”Sen. Ossoff said.

A major New Yorker investigation last year detailed significant ongoing challenges that defendants charged with Federal crimes in Southern Georgia face in trying to obtain access to effective counsel.

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

Rep. Johnson and Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Marina Islands) introduced the companion bill in the U.S. House.

“Access to counsel is a vital component of our national conversation about reforming the criminal justice system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel, but there are still gaps in meeting this need,” said Chair Durbin. “With the Access to Justice Act, we can ensure that Federal public and community defenders are available in every Federal court across the United States and fortify our commitment to the constitutional right to counsel.”

“Every Georgian, regardless of their income, deserves access to legal defense,” said Senator Reverend Warnock. “There’s no reason a person tried in the Southern District of Georgia should be at a disadvantage as compared to someone tried almost anywhere else in the country. I’m proud to support the Access to Justice Act, which is an important step in reforming and improving our criminal justice system.”

“It’s time for Congress to act,” said Rep. Johnson, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee that oversees federal courts. “Georgia’s Southern District is probably one of the worst places in America to be poor and charged with a Federal crime because of its lack of a public defender office. The Access to Justice Act will root out this inequity and provide the kind of representation to which every American has a Sixth Amendment Constitutional right.”

The right to due process is a fundamental right of our nation’s justice system, no matter where one lives or if one can pay for legal representation,”said Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan. “By establishing federal defenders’ offices in the Northern Mariana Islands, Eastern Kentucky, and Southern Georgia, the Access to Justice Act ensures the most vulnerable in our communities are afforded a Federal Public Defender that can protect their right to a fair trial, as guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Today also marks the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which ruled that the Sixth Amendment required courts to provide defense counsel to those who cannot afford it.

Sen. Ossoff’s legislation is backed by several key legal, law enforcement, and civil rights groups, including the Federal Public & Community Defenders, National District Attorneys Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL), Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), and Gideon’s Promise.

“The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (GACDL) support of The Access to Justice Act is rooted in the wealth of resources and training its passage could bring to the representation of people accused of federal crimes, without funds for counsel, in the Southern District of Georgia,” said Jason Sheffield, President, Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL). GACDL is confident that the addition of a defender’s office in the Southern District and its collaboration with the local CJA panel of private attorneys, many of whom are GACDL members, will streamline case management, increase access to national best practices, and continue to promote criminal justice for all.”

“The Federal criminal justice system works best when everyone involved is properly represented by counsel. Ineffective or lack of counsel, creates delays and potential appeals in our federal court system — ultimately, it makes our primary goal of achieving justice for victims more difficult,” said Lazaro Cosme, National President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.“Ensuring adequate counsel is available to defendants will only ensure our Federal justice system remains efficient and effective. The proper administration of justice is imperative. For these reasons, FLEOA proudly supports the Access to Justice Act of 2022.

“If a Georgian is accused of committing a crime, the county in which they reside and the balance in their bank account should have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not they receive a zealous criminal defense. It is past time for the right to counsel to be made into a reality in Georgia’s Southern District,” said Terrica Redfield Ganzy, Executive Director, Southern Center on Human Rights.

“The Access to Justice Act of 2022 will further advance the promise of the Criminal Justice Act by ensuring that a Federal Public or Community Defender office is established in each federal district. Defender offices promote the delivery of competent and zealous advocacy for people who cannot afford counsel, advancing fairness and justice for all,” said Lisa Freeland, Co-chair of the Defender Services Advisory Group and Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Currently, 91 of the country’s 94 federal districts rely on hybrid systems of representations which unite the strengths of institutional public defenders with those of the private bar. The Access to Justice Act extends the protections offered in these 91 federal districts to Georgia, Kentucky, and the Mariana Islands where institutional defender offices do not exist at present to counterbalance the power of government,” said Martín A. Sabelli, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “NACDL strongly supports the Access to Justice Act because it brings us all one step closer to our shared ideals of equality and justice for all.”

“When someone is accused of a crime, the Constitution requires they be represented by counsel who guard their liberty. Federal Public Defenders stand up in courtrooms every day across the nation in service to our Founders’ promise that the accused will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. FAMM is grateful for their heroic work. We are painfully aware that people in a few districts are at risk because they do not have defender offices. We applaud Sen. Ossoff for introducing this important bill to make sure the Constitution’s right to counsel is protected for all Americans,” said Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“When punishment for crime is proportional, we honor each defendant’s God-given dignity and uphold longstanding American values of justice. This includes providing access to defense counsel. We commend Sen. Ossoff for working to ensure that federal defendants have access to high quality defense services,” said Heather Rice-Minus, Senior VP of Advocacy and Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship.

“Today, the criminal justice system is predominantly reserved for those without means.  It is the arena where society deals with all of the problems confronting vulnerable populations. Public defenders must be more than just experts in criminal law and procedure. They must be committed to directly impacted communities. They must be knowledgeable about circumstances that bring people into the system and strategies to prevent this from happening. For public defenders to have the resources, training, and supervision required to confront the myriad challenges of today’s criminal justice system, they require the institutional knowledge and support that only a professional public defender office can bring,” said Jonathan Rapping, President of Gideon’s Promise, Director, Criminal Justice Certificate Program at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. 

Click here to read the Access to Justice Act of 2022.

Click here for a one-page summary of theAccess to Justice Act of 2022.

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