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Courts: Shortage of public defenders leaves their clients in jail

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Public defender Ronald Hazzard doesn’t mind being the underdog once he gets to court. That’s where he’s facing just one prosecutor in defense of clients who can’t afford an attorney.

The rest of the time, Hazzard and Wyn Bessent, the two full-time employees of the Georgetown County office of the 15th Circuit public defender, are battling long odds in a system weighted toward the prosecutor, 10 to 1, in terms of spending.

Their boss, Orrie E. West, has asked Georgetown County Council for an additional $60,000 to hire two part-time attorneys to help manage the case load. Council Chairman Johnny Morant, a lawyer himself, stood up for the request at a budget workshop, but it’s likely to be cut in half if approved at all.

Solicitor Jimmy Richardson is seeking an additional $45,000 for a clerical worker that will allow him to accept funding from the state for two additional prosecutors. The public defender will fall further behind, even with a favorable decision by the county.

West said the solicitor’s budget for the current fiscal year is $975,000. Her budget is $96,100. He has five attorneys in Georgetown County; she has two. The big difference, she said, is that the solicitor has nine support staffers, and she has one.

The Georgetown County public defender’s office occupies space near probate court. It has 75 cases pending with defendants in jail with another 325 who are not incarcerated. “We get more than a case a day,” Hazzard said. The lawyers each have a small office and share the administrative assistant. The solicitor’s office is down the hall. It’s five times bigger. “They’ve got all those people,” Hazzard said, “so they need the space.”

Hazzard said he doesn’t have the space or funding for an investigator. “We pull on the resources of the Horry County office, which is kind of unfair to them.”

West argued that keeping people awaiting trials in jail for long periods of time is a waste of tax money. Hazzard’s client Raymond Moyd would seem to be the poster child for how slowly — and costly — the wheels of justice grind. Moyd has been in jail since January 2014. He has gone on trial once, and a jury found him not guilty of three charges but couldn’t decide a fourth. The hung jury returned him to the county jail in August 2015, and he has been there ever since awaiting a second day in court.

Hazzard hoped to bring his case before Judge Larry Hyman this month, but Confederate Memorial Day on May 10 — it can be a holiday for state employees who choose it — interrupted the trial. It’s on the schedule for June.

Meanwhile Moyd sits in jail, costing the county money. If the jury had convicted him on the fourth charge, he would have been in the state prison system. But he’s still the county’s responsibility. The fact that a black man has to spend another month in jail because of Confederate Memorial Day, isn’t lost on either the defendant or his lawyer. That’s the system. They have to deal with it.

Hazzard said his focus, and that of Deputy Solicitor Alicia Richardson, too, is the jail cases. “In this triage system,” he said, “these folks are taken away from their lives waiting to go to court. What is the residual unfairness, even to folks on bond, is that have a cloud hanging over their heads. I have clients all the time who say they would like to be able to move and take a job somewhere else and can’t. That’s the real life effect of not having the resources to move these cases so people have justice, whether it’s guilty or not guilty. My job is to represent them to the best of my ability, to make sure they have their day in court. When we don’t have the appropriate resources, it slows all that down.”

The county is spending money to house, feed and guard prisoners at the jail. “The more people in jail, the higher those costs are,” Hazzard said. “What you run into over an extended period of time is that folks in jail are like folks anywhere else. They have medical issues that arise. Taxpayers have to pay for that. They don’t let em out to go to their doctor. All those things arise that unfortunately the good folks of Georgetown County are paying for. It’s something most people don’t think about, but something that happens as a result.”

Hazzard said that if his office had more resources, the system would run more smoothly and all those residual costs would go down. More resources would also bring the possibility of additional terms of court. Horry has three weeks of court most months with two judges, Hazzard said, because they can turn the cases over faster.

“Regardless of who’s ready to go to court,” he said, “it comes down to how many hours are in a day and how much can one judge do. It’s not like it’s a conveyor belt where you can speed it up and go faster because justice requires deliberation, requires a judge to think, requires a judge, even on a guilty plea, to go over so many things with a defendant to make sure they understand the rights they are waiving and the gravity of the situation. So there’s only so much that can be done when you have one week and one judge.”

If more cases were prepared, the Office of Court Administration could designate another judge for another week in Georgetown County, Hazzard said.

Bringing defendants from jail to court presents its own challenges. Hazzard finds suitable clothing for his clients so the jury won’t be biased from their appearance. “Most of these guys, being incarcerated for extended periods and being indigent, we end up dressing them,” he said. Goodwill is his retailer of choice. The public defender’s office in Conway has room for a clothes closet, “The Defender Boutique,” he said. “It’s one of the small things we have to do,” he said. “We have our struggles, no question about it.”

Hazzard said things are worse for public defense in states like Louisiana. “The public defender system has said, ‘We give up. We can not represent these folks.’ The languish in jail.”

He said he and West appreciate County Council taking their request seriously. “The door has always been open,” he said. “We are greatly appreciative. There are some horror stories out there in other counties that are not listening.”

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