NAACP: "System Unfair"

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A new NAACP report says that Mississippi's lack of a statewide system for defending the poor in its courts contributes to overcrowding in jails and congested court dockets. But lawmakers say the state doesn't have the money to create such a system.

Mississippi counties pay the cost of public defenders for those who can't afford to hire lawyers. In most Mississippi counties, public defenders are private attorneys contracted to take on indigent cases part time.

The report says that poor defendants often have to compete with paying clients for their attorneys' time. As a result, they can receive poor legal representation from overburdened defenders.

The idea for a statewide system was proposed in 1995 and 1998, but never funded. Lawmakers say there is still no money in the state budget to create a system, which in 1995 was estimated to cost $11 million.

A case in which Quitman County is suing the state over the cost of public defenders goes to trial on April 29.