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

Judge Kristi Curtis told the few defendants who pleaded not guilty that they had the right to a jury trial, but that they would have to wait four to six weeks — meaning those who could not make bail would go back to jail, potentially waiting there longer than the 30-day maximum sentence most could have received.

Pausing, the judge added, “Or, I could decide the case right now.”

Nearly everyone chose a bench trial. Judge Curtis informed each of their right to an lawyer. Only one man requested one, but there was no public defender — a lawyer paid by the government to represent poor defendants — in the courthouse. The man had to return to jail until a later date.

Some jurisdictions hire indigent defense lawyers for their municipal courts on a per-case basis, while Sumter and other cities have fixed-rate annual contracts in which public defenders’ offices receive a specific amount no matter how many clients they represent. Jack D. Howle Jr., the local public defender, has a contract to provide lawyers in municipal court. He declined to comment.

Demographics suggest that many in the court would have qualified for a public defender: Almost one in five people in Sumter, a city of 40,000, live below the poverty line, and criminal defendants are generally overwhelmingly poor.

Still, while nearly one in five inmates in the city’s jail on that afternoon were held solely on municipal court charges, records showed none was represented by a lawyer.

In court, the defendants who declined a lawyer were not told, though the law requires it, that a lawyer would be provided and paid for if they were unable to afford one. Nor were they asked, as they were supposed to be, whether they understood the risk they were taking by waiving their right to one.

Several defendants, clearly unnerved by the prospect of arguing a case in front of a judge, turned and desperately appealed to family members or friends for…

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