ACLU of South Carolina Press Release. March 18, 2013. Charleston.

On the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, many SC courts are still not representing indigent defendants adequately.

On March 18, 2013, as the nation celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark right-to-counsel decision,Gideon v. Wainwright, the ACLU of South Carolina sent letters to all magistrate and municipal courts in South Carolina calling for effective legal representation for all criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.

The ACLU of SC asked each of those courts to address any deficiencies of indigent defense in its court and to collaborate on a comprehensive state-wide system that provides effective, high-quality, and ethical legal representation for criminal defendants who are unable to afford an attorney in all criminal courts of this state.

The United States Supreme Court in its 2002 decisionShelton v. Alabamamade it clear that defendants charged with magistrate level crimes qualify for free counsel, as long as their sentences may “end up in the actual deprivation of … liberty.” Alternative sentences of 30 days or a fine expose defendants to deprivation of liberty—especially if they are poor.

The ACLU of South Carolina’s research revealed that magistrate and municipal courts around the state have no consistent system for providing indigent defense and complying with the 2002 ruling of the United States Supreme Court. Some courts contract with the Circuit Public Defender for indigent defense, others courts have contracts with private attorneys, and some make no provision at all for indigent defense.

According to the South Carolina Judicial Department’s data for July 2010 to June 2011, magistrate courts handled a total of 112,436 criminal cases and DUI cases and the municipal courts handled 175,119 criminal, DUI and ordinance cases. (These figures are understated as they exclude all non-DUI traffic offenses. They do not, for example, include thousands of cases of driving with a suspended license that expose defendants to time in jail.)

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