Public Defender: Cuts to legal services for the poor will cause a court system backlog in Acadiana for years to come

The public defenders office for the tri-parish 15th Judicial District has laid off most of its full-time attorneys and terminated the services of all the contract lawyers to deal with losses in state and local funding for legal representation for poor people accused of crimes.

G. Paul Marx, who heads the 15th Judicial District’s Public Defenders Office for Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes, said nine staff attorneys, 26 contract lawyers and two social workers were let go in the past two weeks.

“I am hugely disappointed for the clients, the lawyers and other people in the system whose work is impaired and jeopardized,” Marx said.

The cuts leave 16 attorneys to represent only the most pressing cases: mostly defendants who remain locked up on felony counts. Marx said those attorneys who stayed, including him, are taking cuts in salary of 20 percent.

Marx also said the cases that do not get addressed, thousands of them, will cause a backup in the judicial system that will take years to work its way out.

“We will be forced to limit representation to only those clients who are currently incarcerated and in the greatest need,” Marx said. “We’ve had to slash (expenditures) by about $160,000 a month. We are incapacitated in terms of almost all work.”

Public defense is funded by several sources: the state, traffic fines, and court costs paid by indigent defendants, all funds that are on a downward trend as are those of the state.

All agencies and departments tied to Louisiana’s budget are facing funding cuts. Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislators began a special session Sunday evening to deal with an estimated shortfall of $940 million for the current budget year, which ends June 30. Legislators and Edwards also will try to close a $2 billion revenue gap estimated for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

One of the proposed spending cuts would slash funding to the state Public Defender Board from almost $33 million a year, which it received in the past, to $12.8 million annually. That fall would further hurt indigent offices throughout Louisiana, especially in Orleans and Plaquemines parishes as well as those in the 15th District.

The whittled-down staff will focus on representing defendants facing felony charges, while traffic and misdemeanor cases could see little to no representation. An example of the prioritization: In Acadia Parish, the attorney assigned to juvenile offenders, Leanna Duncan, has been handed 45 adult felony clients to represent.

The job cuts made in the past two weeks follow a decision in mid-January by Marx to postpone representation of some indigent defendants accused of misdemeanor crimes in the 15th District. Marx said then that no increase in state funds and dwindling local revenue had forced his hand.

Then, in late January and early February, the funding environment got worse and led to the layoffs of the attorneys and the social workers, some of them recruited from across the country.

“They came here and they want to do the work and then you have a meeting and people are crying because they want to do the work,” he said. “It’s been a miserable two weeks.”

Attorneys and legal advocates for the poor will rally at the LSU Law Center at 1 p.m. Tuesday, an hour before the state Public Defender Board meets at 2 p.m.

Caitlin Graham, an attorney with the 15th JDC Public Defenders Office, said in an email release the rally is to give the state board petitions in asking for more assistance.

Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad.

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