Octavious Burks has been waiting for 10 months.
He’s locked in a jail in Scott County, Mississippi. He hasn’t been formally charged. He hasn’t been assigned an attorney.
This is a recurring nightmare for Octavious: The same thing happened in 2009 and 2012. In each case, he was held for roughly a year. Each time, he was eventually released without a trial or a conviction. Octavious has spent over three years of his life locked in a cell without ever being formally charged – let alone found guilty – of a crime.
In November of 2013, Octavious was arrested in connection with a robbery. The judge set his bail at $30,000, which Octavious could not afford. Also unable to pay for a lawyer, Octavious applied for a public defender. The court approved his request, but 10 months later Octavious still hasn’t received an attorney – an advocate who could fight to lower his bail, challenge his arrest, or prepare for a trial.
Why not? Because he has never been formally charged with a crime.
That’s how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they’ve been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it’s two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That’s because Mississippi doesn’t limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.
In Scott County, felony indictments are only issued three times a year, after a grand jury convenes to formally charge defendants with their crimes. If you’re lucky, you might wait two months to hear about your charges. If you’re unlucky, you’re put off until the next session. That’s at least another four months in jail. And if you’re like Octavious, you’re left completely in the dark for months on end.
Octavious is not alone in the darkness – dozens of people are locked in the Scott County jail, without attorneys or formal charges. And this problem isn’t confined to one jail in one county. People statewide are losing months and sometimes years of their lives to a glacial justice system. That means years without work. Years without being able to care for their families. Years without knowing when the ordeal will end. All without the state having to prove a thing.
The Constitution protects you from being arbitrarily imprisoned on a mere allegation. When you’re accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney, even if you can’t afford one. You have a right to a speedy trial. Scott County cannot pretend as if the Constitution doesn’t apply in its courts. That’s why the ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Octavious and others trapped in the Scott County jail, demanding that local judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys change the way they do business.
It’s time for Scott County to stop illegally robbing people of their lives.