Funding concerns still an issue for state public defenders

Updated: Jan. 31, 2019 at 6:57 PM CST
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LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - The pursuit of equal justice for all citizens regardless of income is one of the main missions behind the work of public defenders. These are the people who represent individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney, but here in Louisiana, those who take on this role are battling a bigger issue than the court case in front of them.

“It’s politically painful to say but Louisiana just hasn’t stepped up. The legislature hasn’t stepped up,” said local public defender, King Alexander.

Several years ago, local public defenders took a big hit due to funding. Alexander, a 32-year defense attorney and 13-year public defender in Calcasieu Parish, says it’s something that always lingers in the back of their mind.

“The way our top management here in Calcasieu try to handle it is to basically manage things so that we can keep the doors open for a year; even if we receive no supplemental money from Baton Rouge,” said Alexander.

Among the states, Louisiana is the only state that relies on money from local revenue sources to fund its public defender system that’s based on court fees and traffic fines; something that Alexander says is not always sufficient.

“Louisiana has some supplemental money from the legislature for public defense, but it’s not guaranteed and it’s not the same every year, so it’s difficult to plan,” he said.

According to a 1999 Justice Department survey, 82 percent of all indigent cases in large counties are handled by PDOs, 15 percent by court-appointed attorneys, and three percent by contract attorneys. Less populated counties tend to rely on assigned counsel systems, while contract attorneys are most generally used to handle overflow cases and conflicts of interest (e.g.,where there are two defendants charged with the same crime), although, in recent years, some jurisdictions have replaced their assigned counsel systems with contracting.

Michael Kurth, a local economist who has published studies about the issue says that for a state that handles caseloads twice the recommended state limit, it’s definitely something that more people on the local front should pay attention to.

“It’s not just the poor people. It’s not homeless people. Some of these people have good jobs and are quite well off,” said Kurth. "But when you say, ‘do you want to hire a private lawyer?'—especially when you have a felony case—attorneys won’t take that on a contingency basis.

Click here to check out Kurth’s study: “Defending the Indigent in Southwest Louisiana”

One solution Alexander says to end the ongoing crisis would be for more local officials to advocate for change and have legislators make annual state appropriations to the public defender system.

Out of the 42 judicial districts in the state, 25 of those have had to suspend or cut services due to a lack of funding.

While many D.A. offices also face fiscal problems, their spending serves as a touchstone for Public Defense spending, providing services in more than 80 percent of criminal cases yet receive less than 50 percent of the prosecution’s funding.

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