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People Facing Jail Time for Misdemeanors in Nashville Denied Attorneys

By Innocence Staff

Under Tennessee law, people unable to afford an attorney who are facing misdemeanor charges that could carry jail time are entitled to a pro bono attorney. But, alarmingly, a new report released by the American Bar Association (ABA) reveals that the constitutional right to counsel is commonly violated in Nashville’s misdemeanor courts.

According to an article in ProPublica, for one day in September 2016, the ABA sent attorneys to volunteer in the Davidson County General Sessions Court in Nashville, also known as Court 1A. The purpose was to “review practices in misdemeanor courts in other states throughout the country.” While in court, the volunteers repeatedly saw that not only were defendants told that they could not speak to a judge, but they also were not advised that they were entitled to representation.

In what the report describes as an “assembly-line atmosphere,” writes ProPublica, defendants were quickly ushered through court—with never a defense attorney present—and told that they had the option to either take a plea deal or not take a deal and then go to trial. When individuals asked to speak to a judge, they were told that they could not do so unless they rejected the plea deal offered.

For the most part, judges were absent from the courtroom. When they did appear, they did not ask defendants whether they “understood the plea agreement or its consequences; did not inform defendants of their right to counsel and to a trial; and did not ask if defendants were waiving any of their rights,” says the report.

“There is a shocking disconnect between the system of justice envisioned by the Supreme Court’s right-to-counsel decisions and what actually occurs in many of this nation’s misdemeanor courts,” says the report.

1 Comment

  1. Brittany

    Because this is totally solving the jail overcrowding issues the entire state faces. This failed court process is not doing the correctional institutions in my state any favors. Meanwhile, there are inmates all across the state who should rightly be serving their time in maximum security prisons, but there is simply no room for them. So where do they serve a majority of their sentences? In our county jails, surrounded by non-violent or first time offenders upon whom they have a lot of influence. In turn, they then have a huge pool of VERY easily influenced offenders to use as tools for their own gains. Likewise, this causes inmates who would otherwise have a good chance at full rehabilitation to fail. They then become victims of their surroundings. Because this totally solves the recidivism rate issues in Tennessee….the point being that someone sent to spend jail time over a non-violent misdemeanor offense, being surrounded by multiple-time violent offenders will have a very low chance of \”learning their lesson,\” and only learn how to get away with this or that, what not to do next time, and potentially be charge with more offenses while serving their time because they were pressured out of fear to \”do stuff.\” Furthermore, the non-violent misdemeanor offender will not care about his future and be more likely to fall into this vicious trap simply because he was done wrong in one single court process. Likewise, this person lacked the education to even know what his rights were, much less the education and opportunities to keep him out of trouble in the first place and the correctional process is supposed to aid in solving this issue. I\’m not condoning crime or defending any offender no matter how small his charge. But I am enraged at the fact that this failure in Nashville only makes the jobs of those working in corrections that much difficult. And nobody working in corrections makes enough money to have to deal with the outright results from a highly paid judge not doing HIS or HER job and that can even include a non-violent offender attacking a corrections officer because he was told if he didn\’t do so then he would be the one beat to within an inch of his life. This judge and the people who contributed to this failure in our justice system should be forced to work in a county jail for a month and experience for themselves the direct result of their failures. Shameful.

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