Our Views: Fixing broken system for poor defendants

If headlines announced that state government no longer had the means to jail dangerous criminals, there would rightly be public outcry.

But if Louisiana can’t adequately fund public defenders for poor defendants who can’t afford lawyers, then quite a few guilty defendants could go free. The reason is simple. If a defendant is denied the right to a fair and timely trial because he can’t access a public defender, then constitutional safeguards would compel his release, regardless of whether he might have committed a crime.

That’s reason enough for champions of law and order to be concerned about recent funding problems for public defenders, even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as bleeding hearts.

A long-brewing crisis in the funding for criminal defense offices around the state is reaching a tipping point, although some regions of Louisiana are better off than others.

Public defenders in East Baton Rouge Parish are, for the time being, weathering the funding crisis. But in New Orleans, a federal lawsuit has been filed about the inability of the poor defendants to be provided lawyers. In the Crescent City and in the Lafayette area, offices have been forced to turn away clients.

For obvious political reasons, funding lawyers for poor defendants isn’t the issue that most concerns state legislators, particularly in a time of budget shortfalls. For part of the funding for the law offices in each region of the state, a portion of the fines from traffic tickets has helped supplement expenses. Some public defenders say fines from red-light cameras don’t generate dollars for their offices. In many cases, though, when ticket-writing declines for any reason, a cash crunch comes sooner rather than later for public defenders offices.

Declining revenue and chronic shortfalls have depleted reserves and thrown public defenders programs across the state into difficult positions, said James “Jay” Dixon, the state public defender.

G. Paul Marx, the chief public defender for the judicial district that encompasses Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, outlined for the Louisiana Public Defender Board the dramatic cutbacks in services from his office, which now serves only people sitting in jail on felony charges and a handful of other clients. Layoffs claimed more than half his staff attorneys over the weekend.

Plaquemines Parish’s chief public defender, meanwhile, announced his office is shutting its doors indefinitely at the end of the day Wednesday and furloughing all employees.

Broke public defenders’ offices already would be struggling to fulfill indigent defendants’ constitutional right to a lawyer without further state budget cuts, Dixon said. Public defenders’ offices in 13 of Louisiana’s 42 judicial districts — including the East Baton Rouge office — are restricting services to some degree, a tally Dixon said is almost certain to rise under any scenario.

Ticket revenue has dried up in most parishes across the state, entirely negating a $10 per ticket fee hike passed by the state Legislature in 2012 that was meant to shore up funding for public defenders, Dixon said.

It’s a bad time to be looking for state money. Current worst-case budget proposals have the public defenders system in for a $20.8 million cut, leaving just $12.8 million in state dollars to fill what Dixon said already are yawning gaps in local district budgets.

“It’s a nightmare,” Dixon said following Tuesday’s Public Defender Board meeting. “You have people in jail that don’t have lawyers. It’s that basic.”

We worry that the public safety interest is suffering. If a defendant doesn’t have a lawyer, disposition of cases takes longer. Louisiana’s taxpayers pay more for housing people in jails. If, as the public defenders argue, the system breaks down, the lawsuit alleging an unconstitutional criminal justice process in New Orleans will only be the first of many across the state.

This is not simply an issue of constitutional rights but of the process by which the legal system determines guilt or innocence and serves its larger purpose of protecting both public safety and individual freedoms.

Leaders at the state and local level have to figure out a way to make the system solvent.

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