LAFAYETTE — The local public defender’s office, which gives legal help to defendants who can’t afford it, has cut payments to contract attorneys and piled more cases on those willing to work to cover shortfalls of more than $100,000 a month.
“Everybody is doing more work,” said G. Paul Marx, who heads the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office.
The office provides legal services to indigent criminal defendants in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.
Marx said Friday that he cut payments for attorneys doing public defense work on contract by 25 percent last month, prompting some of the attorneys to stop handling cases.
About 600 of those cases have been reassigned to the contract attorneys who are “hanging with it” and to the office’s paid staff of 10 full-time and two part-time attorneys, he said.
Marx said public defenders represent defendants in more than 90 percent of the criminal cases, providing legal representation that is constitutionally required whether a defendant can afford it or not.
Marx wrote in a statement outlining the financial problems of the office that the “lack of funds necessarily means our system is at risk of making tragic mistakes if the system is incomplete.”
The local public defender’s office has a current annual budget of about $4 million.
Court costs paid by all criminal defendants account for most of the revenue, followed by support from the state and fees paid by clients.
The current financial tight spot is tied to declines in revenue from court costs and client fees, Marx said.
He said that a slight increase in revenue, coupled with spending cuts, should carry his office through the end of this fiscal year in June.
Marx is holding out hope that two new recently approved revenue sources will soon yield fruit.
The state Legislature last year approved raising the public defender court fee charged in every criminal case from $35 to $45.
“We think the increased court costs figures will start showing up more and more,” Marx said.
The local public defender office is also expecting more revenue from the criminal defendants it serves.
Marx said the 15th Judicial District judges last year approved a public defender assessment of $250 to $350 for clients who have enough money to contribute to legal fees, even if they do not have enough to hire a private attorney.
Marx is also pushing for the state to dedicate more money to supplementing the budgets of local public defender offices.
The financial woes for the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office come nearly three years after a report by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association that criticized the office for a lack of management to ensure that clients were receiving effective legal aid.
Marx took the helm at the public defender office in 2010, after the report, and has been gradually building a full-time staff and moving away from the practice of farming out cases to contract attorneys.
“The biggest change is that we now have young lawyers who really see being a public defender as a profession and are really excited about it,” Marx said.
The public defender office is also devoting more resources to investigative work to look into their client’s cases, he said.
The changes have come at a cost.
Marx said had he kept things the way they were, the current funding issues would likely not be so critical, but the office would still have been failing to provide adequate legal representation to those in need.
“The budget, before we worried about standards, had a surplus,” Marx said. “There was money left over, but it was on the backs of clients, because you didn’t provide services.”