Resolution to study public defenders clear committee

A state Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday calling for a study to determine the best way to provide and pay for public defenders.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 would present its findings by Jan. 15, 2015, in order to give legislators time to draft legislation.

SCR99, sponsored by state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, initially called for a study to determine if the system of providing public defenders — the criminal lawyers assigned to defend arrestees who have a right to an attorney but cannot afford one — should be privatized.

“My whole focus with this is really singular to provide those with the least among us with highest quality representation,” Crowe said, adding that Louisiana has the highest rate of post-conviction exonerations.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said she was concerned that some big company would come in and take over representation of the poor, and based on a profit motive do the bare minimum amount of work.

Crowe said he agreed and the resolution was amended to broaden the study to seek the best ways to provide representation, including an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of using contract lawyers versus staff lawyers on a district-by-district basis. The study also would consider appropriate salary ranges.

Julie Kilborn, interim state public defender, said the state constitution requires a uniform system to provide representation for indigent defendants. Louisiana has only two of the 42 offices — New Orleans and Lake Charles — in which public defenders work full time on nothing but representation for indigent criminal defendants. For instance, 55 lawyers in New Orleans handled 27,343 cases, she said.

The offices across the rest of the state allow the public defenders to take on private cases and/or contract private lawyers for specific cases.

The Rev. Dan Krutz, of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference and chair of the budget committee for the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said the public defender system requested $42 million in budget monies but received $33 million. He said the most effective delivery system could be to contract out the work to a private legal company.

“It’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s the most likely possibility,” Krutz said, adding that he thought full-time public defenders are likely the best option.

“But that’s why we want to study the delivery system,” Krutz said.