West Virginia Criminal Justice System Deserves Credit

I have complained before about law enforcement in Florida. There are ten cops for every one person it seems, and they spend most of their time extorting money from motorists. Well I have similar complaints about the criminal justice system in Florida, and any experience with it will cause you to want to bend over and kiss the ground in West Virginia (assuming you are in West Virginia).

Orange County, which is mostly Orlando, seems to be the worst. Imagine that you are charged with a crime in Orange County, Florida. You can’t afford to hire Jose Baez, and you have no publicity to offer him, so you are appointed a public defender. A family member bails you out of jail. You wait and wait, but you never hear from your attorney. So you try and call him or her. You call the Orange County PD’s Office. You get a recording. It thanks you for calling and automatically puts you on hold. Every few minutes a digitized voice tells you how much longer your wait time is. After about 20 minutes of waiting, you get a “customer service representative” who is extremely unhelpful and rather rude. You may find out who your appointed PD is, but you never actually get to speak with him or her.

So you then decide to call the judge’s office to find out some information. But alas, you can’t find the judge’s contact info anywhere – only his bio. So you call the Clerk’s office to try and find the number to the judge’s office. But again, you are put on automatic hold. When you finally get an operator, she listens to you, says “uhhh, hold on,” and redirects you back to the beginning of the phone system as if just to put you off on another operator.

When you finally get a live voice that is willing to give you the number to the judge’s office, you call the judge’s office, and guess what? Yep, another recording. There actually is no live receptionist, just a long recording warning you that “this is a very busy office.”

While all of this is going on, your case meanwhile is charging ahead through Orange County’s automated criminal justice judiciary. You can actually plug in your info and watch your case proceed in real time – you just can’t ask anyone about it, or stop it. What if the system makes a mistake? Who can you tell? You have no access to an attorney. You can’t call the judge. You can’t speak to anyone with any sense at the Clerk’s office. Even the prosecutor won’t speak with you if your not the PD defending the person.

Contrast this with West Virginia. Indigent criminal defendants actually receive great service in rural West Virginia counties. In most counties a private attorney is appointed for the person. These private attorneys have telephone numbers, fax numbers, and usually email addresses. You can call the person, ask questions, set up a live meeting. Or, you could call the judge’s office and speak with the judge’s secretary about the status of your case or even to ask which attorney was appointed to represent you. You could call the circuit clerk’s office and speak with a very helpful person who can answer most questions about your case. Even in the few metropolitan areas of West Virginia the service is much, much better. You can get actual contact information for the public defenders, as well as the prosecutors. And attorneys, whether appointed or public defenders, actually represent you and have ethical obligations to diligently defend your case.

Maybe they would argue that they can’t help it because there are just so many people in the system. And I’m sure the same differences exist with respect to our civil justice system as compared to Florida. But whatever the reason, it makes me glad to both live and practice law in West Virginia.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney

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