Louisiana legislators balked Friday at using taxpayer dollars to pay attorneys $175 an hour to represent convicted sex offenders.
“Whoo! I’m in the wrong area of the law,” state Rep. Tony Ligi said after hearing the Jindal administration’s request for $500,000 to fund legal representation for the offenders at court hearings that determine their post-prison supervision requirements.
Ligi, R-Metairie, is an attorney.
Other concerns were raised during a meeting at the state Capitol on the issue, including how the Jindal administration can ensure state government has enough money to pay the $500,000 when storm bills still must be settled.
In the end, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget compromised by agreeing to spend no more than $250,000 and pay attorneys $110 an hour.
The approval is supposed to end delays that resulted in the release of 13 sex offenders from prison without hearings to determine whether they need stringent monitoring.
Governor’s spokeswoman Shannon Bates said afterward that the reduced funding should be sufficient to jumpstart the court hearings since the committee adjusted attorneys’ hourly rate.
At issue was how to fund a legal process that allows the state to strap an electronic ankle bracelet on a released sex offender deemed by a judge to be sexually violent or a child predator.
The two-step process starts with an evaluation by a Sex Offender Assessment Panel six months before the offender’s release and results in a judge deciding whether the traditional method of registering with law enforcement and notifying neighbors is insufficient.
The SOAP process allows the state to go even further and monitor sex offenders’ Internet activities, read their emails and require life-time electronic monitoring.
A legal battle over the law delayed the process. A lack of funding for offenders’ attorneys and mental health experts caused further delays, resulting in the release of offenders from prison before a court hearing could be held. One released offender died in the interim.
Under the funding request approved Friday, the Louisiana Public Defender Board will hire civil attorneys to represent the offenders at the hearings.
Several legislators said there were unfamiliar with the SOAP process, which has existed several years.
“We’re fighting over whether to fund it or not,” state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. “I want to know if it actually works.”
John DiGiulio, the board’s trial-level compliance officer, said it probably is too early to tell.
“No one has been happy with the legislation over the years,” he said.
The board’s general counsel, Roger Harris, said that even the courts are split on whose financial responsibility the legal representation of sex offenders is.
Questions also arose about the state’s ability to pay for the legal bills.
The Legislative Fiscal Office, which reviews state spending proposals, refused to back the funding request amid concerns that the needed dollars will fail to materialize.
“We just don’t feel comfortable with it,” said John Carpenter, acting legislative fiscal officer.
Barry Dussé, state director of planning and budget for the Jindal administration, pointed out that the state budget shows $5 million that is not allocated for expenses.
He said the cases need to move forward.
State Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, the state budget bill’s sponsor, said the state’s unexpected expenses for Hurricane Isaac exceed $5 million. Those bills will have to be paid at some point, Fannin said.
“We’ve had the cost of the storm, which far exceeds the $5 million that we have,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how I support this today because, from the budget perspective, I don’t think the money’s there.”
Dussé said the governor will find the revenue.
“You have the possibility of criminals running around without the monitoring devices,” Dussé said.