In Louisiana, Lack of Public Defender Funding Systematically Threatens Sixth Amendment

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April 7, 2016, WDSU (New Orleans, LA)

In New Orleans, private attorneys have been appointed as pro bono counsel due to the lack of funding for public defenders, and are going to court in an effort to halt prosecutions until the Public Defenders Office can provide adequate funding for defending seven people charged with serious crimes.

The cost to prepare a proper defense goes beyond paying for an attorney, and often includes costs for investigations, expert witnesses, locating and testing evidence. Pam Metzger, a professor at Tulane Law School and one of the pro bono counsel asking the court to halt prosecution, states, “We have seven people charged with the most serious crimes whose cases cannot move forward because we cannot fund their defense. You can ask lawyers to give their time, but you cannot expect them to pay out of pocket the enormous cost of defending a case like this.”

This action by the appointed pro bono attorneys in New Orleans comes just months after the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish Public Defenders’ Office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board on behalf of three clients who were placed on a wait list for an attorney because they cannot afford a private attorney, violating their Sixth Amendment Rights.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, argues that the funding for public defenders is “unreliable and prone to crippling shortages in a system that makes public defenders dependent on excessive policing and draconian sentencing that work against the people they defend.”

In early 2015, the Louisiana Public Defender Board declared that by the end of fiscal year 2016, at least 25 of the state’s 42 Public Defender Offices would become financially insolvent. This is in large part due to the perverse way that Louisiana has funded their local public defender offices. Almost 2/3 of the funding is based on a funding stream that is unpredictable—fines from traffic tickets and court costs. This lack of funding has forced public defender offices to place a limit on the cases they accept, leaving criminal defendants without adequate counsel and on a waitlist until a public defender can take their case.

In response to the ongoing budget crisis, the Orleans Public Defenders Office put forth a restriction of services plan that outlined their process for meeting an approximately $1 million budget shortfall that included restricting services and continued cutting of an already minimized budget. One of the proposed solutions was appointing pro bono lawyers for defendants charged with serious crimes, leading to the court action taking place this week.

Projections for the next fiscal year are even bleaker, with the proposed budget slashing funds for indigent defense by more than 60 percent.

This budget crisis has put an already overloaded system into free-fall, with public defenders overloaded and pro bono attorneys without the financial support to mount an appropriate defense. Defendants are left with inadequate defenses and spending time behind bars without anyone to represent them, and victims are left waiting for justice that may never come.—Kari Thierer