[5/13/17] The entire public defender system in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, fits in a squat, white FEMA trailer — a remnant of the relief effort that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The trailer is parked in a grassy lot along a commercial stretch about 30 minutes outside of New Orleans. The neon sign of a bail bond office flickers across the lot.
Like all public defenders, the Plaquemines Public Defenders Office, which is composed of two lawyers and an administrative assistant, is meant to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, fulfilling their constitutional right to legal counsel. In February the office announced that it was out of money and would be furloughing both lawyers and closing its doors, making it the first casualty of a public defender funding crisis that has been spreading across the state.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board (LPDB), which disperses state funding to local public defender offices, was ultimately able to provide $80,000 to the Plaquemines office to cover payroll and office supplies only until July, when the current fiscal year ends. But the office still lacks money for outside resources like investigators and contract attorneys to cover cases where public defenders have a conflict of interest. Defendants on those cases are moved to a wait list, which currently numbers about five in a parish of 24,000.
The wait list is far longer in other areas of the state, and many are sitting in jail without access to a lawyer.
“I have clients calling saying, ‘Hey, I heard you’re not going to be in business anymore. What am I supposed to do?'” said Matthew Robnett, the chief public defender in Plaquemines. “I tell them, ‘Hopefully we will be, but be thankful you’re not in jail when you get on the wait list.'”
In Louisiana — which leads the United States in incarceration rates and has the second highest exoneration rate per capita in the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations — 85 percent of defendants qualify for a public defender. As of April, 33 out of 42 of its public defender offices are either refusing cases or maintaining a wait list in order to manage budget shortfalls, staff cuts, and impossibly high caseloads.
With the state scrambling to cover a $600 million budget deficit left by former Governor Bobby Jindal, significant funding increases are unlikely, and many expect the crisis to worsen before it gets better.
The predicament stems from Louisiana’s unique “user pay” system for funding indigent legal services. It is the only state that relies on court fees, collected mainly from traffic tickets, to fund the majority of local public defender budgets. Public defenders get about two-thirds of their overall funding from local revenues, the LPDB estimates, leaving them constantly guessing what their annual budgets will be.
“The way we’re funded is unstable and unreliable and inadequate,” said Jay Dixon, state public defender at the LPDB. “That will always be the problem.”
Revenue from traffic violations has steadily declined over the past decade, with financial reserves for local public defender offices dipping from $18 million in 2010 to $6 million last year. As a downturn in the oil and gas industry exacerbates fiscal woes throughout Louisiana, state funds are increasingly hard to come by.
Public defender offices, many of them already overburdened and underfunded, have been hit hard. The office in the 15th Judicial District, which covers the parishes of Lafayette, Vermillion, and Acadia in southwestern Louisiana, lost more than half its staff from January to April of this year due to lack of funding. The diminished headcount means more cases that present a conflict of interest for the remaining staff, and there are about 5,200 on a wait list for a lawyer across those three parishes, including as many as 300 currently in jail.
‘We’re talking about the incarceration of poor black people. That’s the crux of it.’
The Orleans Public Defenders Office in New Orleans, which handles 20,000 to 25,000 cases a year, stopped taking complex felony cases in January, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to file a class action lawsuit against it and the state public defender board. A total of 348 cases have been refused there so far, and 106 cases remain on the wait list.
“Any kindergartner looking at our criminal justice system — particularly our system of public defense — can see it is unfair,” the Orleans Public Defenders said in response to the lawsuit. “While this lawsuit is not necessarily welcomed, OPD welcomes reform. It is our hope this lawsuit leads to lasting reform and a more fair, more just criminal justice system.”