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Georgia Settles Case Alleging Assembly-Line Justice For Children


There's a new development in a story we brought you earlier this year about a lawsuit that accused the state of Georgia of failing to provide poor young people with lawyers. That court case has been settled and advocates call it a major victory for juvenile justice. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The leader of the Justice Department's civil rights unit put it this way.

VANITA GUPTA: In a fact in too many courtrooms around the country, children and adults are kind of basically having assembly-line justice.

JOHNSON: Vanita Gupta says that's why her lawyers decided to weigh-in on a state court case in Georgia. The case argued public defenders in several counties there are so overwhelmed that defendants are routinely denied their right to a lawyer. In the weeks after the Justice Department filing, the top federal prosecutor in Macon, Ga. engaged in some shuttle diplomacy. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore spent hours meeting with state officials and children's advocates. And ultimately, Moore brokered a deal.

MICHAEL MOORE: I just thought it was time to sit down and for us to come together and look for a way to address the problem to maybe put politics aside as people who live in the community and who care about our court system.

JOHNSON: Moore says the settlement will ensure that young people accused of crimes are represented by lawyers with training and experience in adolescent development. And he says now all people detained in jails - children and adults - won't have to wait more than three days to see a lawyer.

MOORE: A lawyer has to do more than simply occupy a spot in a courtroom, and this order and this consent decree really means that people who are in court in front of a judge have somebody there who's invested in them and invested in their case.

STEPHEN BRIGHT: This settlement should make a great difference, particularly for children.

JOHNSON: That's Stephen Bright. He's the man who filed the case on behalf of poor people in Georgia.

BRIGHT: The three public defenders have had so many adult cases there just has not been time to get down to juvenile court and represent the children, who often have urgent needs for legal representation.

JOHNSON: The settlement requires the public defender office to hire more lawyers and another investigator. That's critical help for young people who appear in court, Bright says.

BRIGHT: The children that come into the court are not beyond redemption. They certainly are often charged with very minor things - often things that just happened at the school, which are just things that teenagers do.

JOHNSON: State authorities in Georgia had no comment for this story. As for Steve Bright, he's cautiously optimistic about the deal, but he says there's much more work to do to protect the right to counsel all over the country, a right he says the Supreme Court has guaranteed for 50 years. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.