Audit: Little monitoring of public defenders

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The board that oversees Louisiana’s public defender system does a poor job of making sure the lawyers provide adequate legal representation for clients facing the death penalty, according to an audit released Monday.

“A lot of these issues would go away with adequate funding,” said State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr., adding the performance review was a good opportunity to improve operations and procedures.

“We request $40 million to $45 million, and we get $33 million. But we make do with what we have,” Dixon said. The board has been appropriated a little more than $33 million since 2012. The recommended budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $33.8 million.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board monitors the state’s 42 judicial district offices that provide lawyers for defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. It also contracts with six nonprofits to handle appeals in death penalty cases for poor clients and to help district offices that can’t represent a defendant because of a conflict of interest, lack of funds or other problems.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office looked solely at the board’s work handling capital cases, not its other indigent defense work.

The report said in capital cases the board hasn’t reviewed the work as required under its contracts, hasn’t established any performance standards for lawyers though the benchmarks are required by law and doesn’t track the price of defense work to make sure it’s provided in a cost-effective way.

State law requires (board) staff to monitor the performance of all capital defense attorneys to ensure that each defendant is receiving high-quality legal representation,” auditors wrote. “However, LPDB does not adequately monitor the ongoing performance of attorneys.”

In a written response, the board took issue with some of the report’s findings, saying it does more monitoring than the audit suggests through monthly trial reports, the certification process for its attorneys and other tracking methods.

A board leader also said the agency intends to make improvements and was working on performance standards. State Public Defender Dixon said performance standards would ready for approval by March 10.

“While we might disagree with certain aspects of the report, on the whole, it provides our office with guidance and the opportunity for improvement,” wrote Robert Burns, a retired judge and vice chairman of the public defender board.

The public defender board “has insufficient staff to observe the performance of all capital defense attorneys in the district and program offices on a regular basis and looks to the district defenders and program directors to supervise their staff,” Burns wrote.

The audit also stated that the board has high turnover rates among staff in 2012 (losing four of 15 employees) and 2013 (losing six of 14 employees) “may have contributed to weaknesses we identified in LPDB’s oversight of capital defense services.”

Additionally, 29 of the 42 district offices operated at a deficit that depleted their fund balances, the audit said.

Funding has been stagnant for three years, and the audit said the district offices have been struggling with deficits and depleting fund balances to cover expenses.

The board has repeatedly asked the governor and lawmakers for more money and cites the lack of additional resources as a hindrance to its oversight obligations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.