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Weak Public Defense System Forces Rural Poor Into Guilty Pleas, Nevada Lawsuit Says

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused Nevada of neglecting a public-defense system that deprives the rural poor of their constitutional rights.
Image: The White Pine County Courthouse in Ely, Nevada
The White Pine County Courthouse in rural Ely, Nevada.Jordan McAlister / Flickr Vision -Getty Images

Poor people who get charged with crimes in rural Nevada are getting cheated in court by a cash-starved public defense system that assigns lawyers who don't have enough time or resources to mount strong cases, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit Thursday.

This "indigent defense crisis," as the ACLU describes it, relies on a network of overworked, court-appointed lawyers who are paid flat fees, making them less inclined to meet with clients, review their cases, challenge high bail amounts or hire investigators, the lawsuit said.

That, according to lawyers who filed the civil rights complaint, makes poor defendants more likely to get stuck in jail for long periods of time before trial, which in turn makes them more likely to plead guilty ─ even if they insist they did not commit the crimes.

Related: Some Say America’s Bail System is Unfair. Can Data Fix It?

"What you see is an incredible lack of contact with the clients by the defense attorneys," said Franny Forsman, a retired federal public defender in Nevada who joined the ACLU in the lawsuit.

Nevada, a largely rural state with two big cities, Las Vegas and Reno, leaves most counties to operate their own indigent-defense systems. The state used to provide the bulk of the funding for those local systems, but in recent years the funding split has flipped, with the counties, many of them struggling financially, to pick up most of the costs. Forsman said.

The lawsuit focuses on 11 rural counties that use so-called contract attorneys.

The White Pine County Courthouse in rural Ely, Nevada.Jordan McAlister / Flickr Vision -Getty Images

The lawsuit accuses the state of Nevada and Gov. Brian Sandoval of failing to address the problem, despite years of studies documenting it ─ and proposed legislative remedies. In June, Sandoval approved the creation of a commission to study indigent defense. But, as the lawsuit pointed out, it has no power to force any changes.

A spokeswoman for Sandoval called the lawsuit "disappointing," saying the governor had worked with the state Supreme Court, legislature and advocacy groups on the issue. The spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin, said Sandoval, a Republican, had signed a law creating a "rural judicial district" that provided "greater access to justice for many living in rural communities."

The ACLU lawsuit claims the current system violates defendants' constitutional rights of due process and assistance of counsel. It names three rural plaintiffs who say their cases suffered because they didn't have proper access to a public defender; the ACLU wants to turn it into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of many more people.

The action in Nevada is part of a broader push by civil rights groups to challenge what they see as the criminal justice system's discrimination against America's poor. The ACLU has already spearheaded indigent-defense lawsuits against the states of Idaho, Missouri and Utah; counties in California, Washington and Pennsylvania; and the Louisiana parish that includes New Orleans. All the lawsuits remain pending in court.

At the same time, there is a growing movement to eliminate cash bail across the country, which critics say keeps poor people locked up at higher rates, making them more likely to lose jobs, fall into debt, plead guilty and serve time in prison.

And there is mounting opposition to local court systems that jail people who can't pay fines and fees, which critics say amount to modern-day debtors prisons.

The Nevada lawsuit outlines the cases of three people who say their public defenders pressured them to accept plea bargains without spending much time reviewing their cases or hiring investigators.

One, Jason Lee Enox, a house painter, spent 19 months in jail on drug and weapons charges ─ including stretches in which he didn't see a lawyer for months at a time ─ before accepting a plea agreement he says he felt pressured to take. A second, Diane Davis, who is disabled, has been assigned four different lawyers over four years as she tried to fight charges of arson and animal cruelty. The third, Ryan Adam Cunningham, has been in jail since April on charges of assault and child abuse but has been unable to reach his court-appointed lawyer since September, even though he is scheduled to go on trial early next year.

"Under the state’s current structure, the adversarial system cannot function properly," the lawsuit says, "and it cannot be relied on to reach just outcomes."