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Georgia DOC to Provide Court Access With Computers, Legal Software

Georgia DOC To Provide Court Access With Computers, Legal Software

The Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) is changing the way it affords prisoners access to courts. Out are the six lawyers who provided prisoners with free legal assistance. In are computers, legal software, and paralegals.

According to Bill Amideo, chief legal counsel for the DOC, the state has already purchased 170 computers loaded with Westlaw legal database software to be used in prison law libraries statewide.

Under the new plan, which was reported in the November 30, 2003, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the state will also hire up to four paralegals to assist prisoners, though they will be prohibited from dispensing legal advice, said Amideo. Library supervisors will also be trained to help prisoners negotiate the software.

Since 1996, six attorneys from an Alpharetta law firm have provided free legal aid to Georgia's 47,000 prisoners through the Center for Prisoners' Legal Assistance. According to the center's director, Craig Cascio, the firm's annual $1.1 million contract was not renewed at the end of 2003.

One of the Center's main duties was correcting wrongly entered sentences, said Cascio, who estimates the center saved state taxpayers $17.7 million in imprisonment costs by correcting 590 sentences. Cascio also noted that in its seven-year existence, the center represented more than 275 prisoners in court, winning 125 of the cases. Prison officials say the new system is better and cheaper. But not everyone is convinced.

"We expect it to be an improvement over the current [system] in terms of functioning ability and satisfaction with inmates and staff," said Amideo. "And it's going to be cheaper, which is of benefit to taxpayers."

Pursuant to the terms of its $358,000 contract, Westlaw will update the software twice a year. The estimated cost of retaining the paralegals and a supervisor in Atlanta will likely run about $250,000 a year. The total cost of the new system, according to Amideo, will be $700,000 to $800,000 a year.

Cascio said he was concerned that the changes would negatively impact prisoners with limited education and income. Cascio noted that Georgia was still looking for funds to provide counsel for indigent defendants throughout the state.

"We're not providing proper defense at the trial level," said Cascio. "We're the last stop for people properly challenging their convictions. We're taking away at the front end and at the back end people's ability to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions."

For more on court access and the Georgia DOC, see PLN, October 1999, p. 8.

Source: Atlanta-Journal Constitution

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