“Summary Injustice” Exposes South Carolina Courts that Convict and Jail Many Defendants Without a Lawyer Present

By Collecting Fines for Low-Level Offenses, Courts Are Money-Makers for Towns

After observing and investigating proceedings at 27 “summary courts” in South Carolina, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ACLU, and the ACLU of South Carolina together produced Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts. These courts try and convict people accused of low-level offenses, routinely failing to adequately advise defendants that they have a constitutional right to a lawyer, whether they can afford to pay for one or not.

The report reveals other standard operating procedures that have no place in the American justice system. The police who arrest defendants act as their prosecutors, the judges aren’t required to have a law degree, and defense lawyers are a rarity. With no lawyers in the courtrooms, errors that result in increased punishments for the defendants go unnoticed. The report details the cases of several defendants and their sentences.

Municipal courts – which are one kind of summary court—are flourishing in South Carolina because they make money for their towns’ coffers by collecting fees and fines. 

The court-watching for Summary Injustice was conducted between December 2014 and July 2015. The report is the first step in the ACLU and the National Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s joint investigation of South Carolina’s summary courts. Together we are gathering data from magistrate and municipal courts in several counties across the state, and our next report will offer recommendations for reforms that will ensure South Carolinians’ access to their constitutional right to an attorney. 

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