In our legal system, even convicted criminals have rights. And one of the most important is access to the courts. Right now, Georgia employs an independent law firm to counsel inmates, but the state is replacing them with computers in a move that has some legal professionals concerned. The state says the move will save money and provide better access for inmates, but critics we spoke with says it's a disaster waiting to happen.
"We are modifying our legal access to the courts system for inmates in a way that we believe is designed to bring access to a broader number of inmates and to provide them with greater access to current case law than they previously had," said Bill Amideo, general counsel for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
The law firm that counsels prisoners is being replaced with a computer legal system called Westlaw. "It's an excellent research tool," explained local attorney Joyce Griggs. "You use Westlaw to access case law, to do your research, to write your briefs, to prepare your arguments."
Griggs says systems like Westlaw are invaluable to lawyers, but might not do a lot of inmates any good. "A lot of the criminal defendants that I've worked with, their education level was very low," she said. "A lot of them are functionally illiterate. And I just don't believe that Westlaw would be a viable legal tool for them."
But the state says they will have help. "There will be a lawyer and paralegals who are assigned to provide this service," said Amideo. "I expect that they'll have as much or more one-on-one access as they've had in the past."
Griggs says it's not enough. "I think the Westlaw system may be an accident waiting to happen."
In fact, critics say it could open up the state to legal action from prisoners who feel they're being denied adequate access to the courts. "The ACLU will be I'm sure the first organization to help them file lawsuits against the state, and we don't need that at this particular time," said state senator Regina Thomas (D-Savannah).
The state hopes to save between $200,000 and $400,000 a year with the new system, but critics say it could ultimately end up being more costly if those lawsuits start happening.