Public Defender's Office faces local, state funding decreases

Public Defender's Office faces local, state funding decreases

As lawmakers continue to work in Baton Rouge to solve the budget crisis, state-funded agencies are feeling the strain on their pocketbooks.

Funding issues are nothing new to Public Defender Offices (PDOs), and it's not just money from the state that's shrinking.

"We are the only criminal justice entity guaranteed by the United States Constitution but we are the only one not funded," said 14th Judicial District Public Defender Harry Fontenot.

Funding for the district's PDO comes from two sources: the state public defender board and local revenue generated from court cost and tickets.

"$33 million is the budget, about half of that - usually anywhere between $16-17 million - is provided to the districts in what's called a District Assistance Fund," said James Dixon, state public defender.

Of the $33 million budget, almost $10 million is given to non-profits like the Innocence Project, the Louisiana Appellate Project, and those that try death penalty cases.

District Attorney John DeRosier called this a misuse of funds.

"It is my firm belief that the reason it cost so much is that the state indigent defender board is trying desperately to price capital punishment out of the market," said DeRosier, "To make it so unaffordable that we'll quit doing it."'

DeRosier questioned why the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends millions representing death penalty cases, leaving only half it's budget for the majority of cases.

He used the case of Jason Reeves as an example.

"It resulted from the vicious homicide of a 4-year-old girl about 11 years ago," said DeRosier.

Reeves was convicted, but while on death row, he has gone through a lengthy appellate process - both state and federal. He now is raising competency as an issue, meaning more hours and more money in court.

"The Public Defender's Office has three expert witnesses; I had to have an expert witness," said DeRosier, "Our expert witness with his group cost $163,000 that's in addition to the half or three-quarter million we've already spent prosecuting this case and handling the appellate process for the last 10 years."

District Public Defender Harry Fontenot agreed, saying capital cases cost big.

"They have to have at least two certified attorneys for death penalty; they have to have mitigation experts; they have to have investigators," said Fontenot.

However, with so few capital cases coming through the 14th Judicial District, death penalty cases aren't the biggest strain on the budget.

In 2015, the 14th District PDO had a little less than $1 million available from the Louisiana Public Defender Board. That number could be slashed in half after this special legislative session.

"Cutting misdemeanors, cutting felonies, cutting everything except people in jail with felonies, serious felonies," said Fontenot about what he expects next year.

Major cuts are coming but that's not even the PDO's main source of funding. The office gets most of its money from local sources, but that's decreasing, too.

"When someone is convicted or pays a traffic ticket, we are supposed to get $45 of that. But you can't get $45 when they aren't writing tickets through the court system," said Fontenot.

In 2011, 20,147 traffic tickets were filed in Lake Charles City Court. In 2015, only 6,155 tickets went through the system - a 70-percent drop in just four years.

"Right now, I'm 21 employees down; I'm 16 police officers down; I have 19 officers in training. Call it what you want - that's 35 officers on the street down," said Lake Charles Police Chief Don Dixon.

Dixon said fewer officers on the street, mean fewer tickets in court. For the PDO, the ticket decrease is a $629,640 loss compared to five years ago.

"It's not the job of the Lake Charles Police Department to fund the Public Defender's Office - let me make that point perfectly clear," said Dixon.

While Dixon isn't concerned with funding the PDO's office, Fontenot questioned another ticket-writing program.

"If they are writing tickets, they are writing them through the LACE Program," said Fontenot.

According the the D.A. the LACE Program is an overtime program worked after hours by police officers who are then paid by the ticket revenue generated through the program. These tickets aren't processed through City Court, meaning the PDO doesn't get any money from them.

In 2015, 2,510 tickets were written through the Lake Charles LACE Program. Fontenot sees that as revenue his office is missing out on, but DeRosier says he is voluntarily giving some of that money to the PDO.

"I give the PDO 10-percent off the top of my Lake Charles City Police LACE Program," said DeRosier, "In addition to that, I use the LACE money to pay the PDO $20,000 for a part-time defender to handle the magistrate court that was created about a year ago by the 14th JDC."

According to the District Attorney, LACE gave about $54,000 to the PDO last year.

DeRosier also points to another source of funding the public defender has access to - a $40 application fee which should be collected for every defendant needing a public defender.

In 2015, 4,024 applications were submitted, but only 26-percent of the fees were collected.

"Over $100,000 on the table, the PDO has not collected just in 2015," said DeRosier.

The PDO said it would cost time, energy, and money to track down those missing application fees. More than what would be collected.

The District Attorney has offered help recovering that money in the past. Our interviews with officials have regenerated those discussions and the details are being worked out now.

The combination of low local funding and drastic state cuts, could force the Public Defender's Office to release all of its clients except for those in jail facing felony charges. It could even lead to the entire office to shut its doors.

Fontenot said if the PDO closes, judges may appoint private attorneys to the indigent cases, but those lawyers aren't required to take on the case.

"If they go on the waiting list they would end up prescribing," said Fontenot, "Prescribing means they would time out, statute of limitations."

Meaning defendants wait it out. Once the time is up for the speedy trial they're promised, the charges drop. Justice delayed? Justice denied.

All involved agree, it's a scenario they'd rather avoid. With so much of the budget relying on an unstable source of revenue, and the state's money no more reliable, has the system put constitutional rights on the chopping block?

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