It has become an annual ritual in Louisiana: Nearly every winter, the state’s public defenders run out of money. Last year, 33 of the state’s 42 local indigent defense offices cut staff or placed thousands of poor defendants on a wait list. The New Orleans public defender’s office began refusing clients, leaving hundreds to sit in jail without representation.
This year, there is another wait list. At least 11 Louisiana defendants facing the death penalty—including five who have already been indicted—have no defense team and may not have one until new money becomes available in July. The list is likely to grow. In Louisiana, all first-degree murder defendants face execution unless a prosecutor explicitly decides otherwise.
The latest crunch in Louisiana emerged from a law passed last year to try to patch up the system. The legislation, signed by Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards in June 2016, required Louisiana’s state-level indigent defense agency to spend more on the overloaded local defenders—the ones who handle regular felony and misdemeanor cases—by spending less on lawyers in death penalty cases. The law successfully delivered about $5 million in additional cash to indigent defense offices around the state, including a $1.5 million boost for New Orleans, which has since ended its hiring freeze and reduced its wait list to essentially zero.
But funding for capital defenders was cut to $5.5 million from $8.5 million in just a year.
“They robbed Peter to pay Paul,” said Jay Dixon, chief defender for the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which is scheduled to hold a statewide meeting Thursday to discuss the waitlisted capital defendants. “We’re still in crisis; it’s just a different crisis. And now they can’t shift any more money around, so we could be facing an even greater crisis next year.”