Some public defender offices turning away clients, East Baton Rouge 'treading water' during budget crisis

Public defenders in East Baton Rouge Parish are, for the time being, weathering the deepening funding crisis better than some other district offices elsewhere in Louisiana.

Unlike public defenders in other parishes such as Lafayette, Vermilion, Acadia and Orleans, Mike Mitchell, the chief public defender in East Baton Rouge, said his office hasn’t yet been forced to turn away clients.

But Mitchell said further state funding cuts or a drop in traffic tickets in the parish, which make up much of the office’s local revenue, could push his office over the edge, forcing poor and working-class residents facing criminal charges onto waiting lists — and bringing already slow-moving courts to a crawl.

“Right now, we’re treading water,” Mitchell said. But additional cuts or drops in funding “would throw us into the position where we’d have to lay off more people, more attorneys and we would have to start refusing to accept cases.”

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

Tuesday afternoon, 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 following layoffs that claimed more than half his staff attorneys over the weekend.

Plaquemine 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 would already 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.

But with the Legislature scrambling to plug its own massive shortfalls of up to $900 million through June 30 and $2 billion next year, the situation may get worse: Current worst-case budget proposals have the public defender system in for a $20.8 million cut, leaving just $12.8 million in state dollars to fill what Dixon said are already 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.”

Under contingency plans accepted Tuesday by the board, those cuts would mean starting July 1 most local public defenders would cease accepting juvenile or misdemeanor cases or those of anyone charged with a felony who’s not sitting in jail.

Bad as that is, Dixon and other members of the board said Tuesday, it’d almost certainly cause the entire public defense system to spiral into insolvency.

“If that happens, there’s just going to be a complete collapse of the public defender system,” Dixon said, estimating that eight district public defender programs would close entirely by August if the proposed cuts go through. “It’s ridiculous.”

Those sorts of cuts could open the state and local offices to scores of federal lawsuits, board members and public defenders said Tuesday, because of constitutional guarantees to a speedy trial and legal representation.

Orleans Parish, which has been under restriction of services, is already the subject of a federal suit.

“I would suspect when you start closing down public defenders’ offices, that’s a real possibility,” Dixon said.

Marx, the chief public defender in the 15th Judicial District, said the case loads his remaining attorneys are dealing with fall well above professional guidelines — even after turning away possible clients and delaying other cases.

“What have we lost?” Marx said. “We’ve lost the right to counsel.”

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