Struggling public defender’s offices running head-on into Louisiana budget crisis

Poor people accused of crimes in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes who are dependent upon court-appointed lawyers can forget about speedy trials, and those already slow-moving death penalty cases will grind to a crawl.

Both scenarios and more are probable if the tri-parish 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office doesn’t get an injection of cash soon, officials said Tuesday.

Such are some of the consequences of broke public defenders offices, where indigent defendants’ constitutional right to a lawyer has run head-on into Louisiana’s budget crisis.

Citing a lack of funds, the 15th District’s chief public defender, G. Paul Marx, on Monday canceled the services of 26 criminal defense attorneys who had contracts with the office. Marx also laid off or accepted the resignations of nine attorneys and two social workers who were full-time employees. Those who kept their jobs were hit with a 20 percent salary cut.

“How did this happen? We’re going to have to look back at this for quite some time,” Marx told the Louisiana Public Defender Board in a meeting Tuesday in Baton Rouge. “It’s just a disaster.”

Funding for public defenders offices across the state has been cut due to Louisiana’s budget crisis — shortfalls of up to $900 million through June 30 and $2 billion next year — and it hit Marx’s 15th District office harder than most, though not all: The head of the state defender board said this week that Plaquemines Parish’s program will shut down entirely.

“The dilemma we find ourselves in is unprecedented. I would say we’re in a crisis setting,” said Keith Stutes, district attorney for the 15th Judicial District.

Stutes said what’s getting lost in the arguments over attorney pay and increased workloads is the plight of the defendants, who have the right to have their cases adjudicated. Now, he said, it looks like they’ll sit in legal limbo until funding is found to pay for their defense.

And when their attorneys do return, there will be such a bubble in the justice pipeline, it could take years to work itself out, Stutes said.

In 2015 alone, the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office handled 12,264 new cases. Of those, 7,555 were still on the 15th District Court docket at beginning of January, according to figures provided by the local defenders office. Marx’s cost-cutting move this week followed one he made in January when he announced his office would postpone representing nonjailed defendants accused of misdemeanor crimes.

After this week’s layoffs and contract cancellations, the local defenders office is left with six full-time attorneys, including Marx, and 11 Gideon’s Promise Law School attorneys who do not charge the defenders office for their services. The remaining attorneys will concentrate on the most serious cases, and there will be at least one defender in Lafayette City Court.

Some of the longtime defense attorneys who worked on contract scratched their heads Tuesday, lamented the problems and questioned aloud what the loss of longtime attorneys will mean.

“There’s something to be said about experienced lawyers and what they bring to the table for a defendant,” said Valex Amos Jr., a criminal defense attorney for decades whose contract was canceled.

Amos, who has represented clients in 13 capital cases, said defendants in the 15th District’s two death penalty cases may have to be represented by attorneys with the New Orleans-based Capital Defense Project.

Thomas Alonzo, who also had his contract canceled, said Tuesday his representation of a Vermilion Parish defendant accused in the 2014 first-degree killing of a sheriff’s deputy was unclear. In that case, Quintylan Richard and his alleged accomplice face the death penalty.

On Tuesday, both Amos and Alonzo continued to represent their clients at the Lafayette Parish Courthouse, even though they know they won’t be paid.

“I can’t just walk away,” Amos said. He conceded he doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to help out free of charge.

Clare Svendson, who resigned from her defender job in Marx’s office last week, said she has taken a job as a federal public defender in Lafayette.

“I hopefully saved someone else from being let go,” she said.

Caitlin Graham kept her job in Marx’s office. On Tuesday, she and Marx attended a rally at LSU before the state Public Defender Board met at the university’s law school. She said her case load has doubled and her pay has dropped.

She also said the 15th District defenders office could face lawsuits because of the situation.

Advocate staff writer Bryn Stole reported from Baton Rouge. Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad.

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