The state's public defender program could get regular injections of new funding under a bill that the House of Representatives will consider when it convenes on Wednesday afternoon.
HB 413 by New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III would appropriate an additional $9.8 million per year in state general fund dollars to the the program that provides constitutionally required legal representation to people who do not have the means to hire their own attorney.
Jay Dixon, who leads the state Public Defender program, says the program badly needs the money.
"Our attorneys opened 150,000 new cases last year," Dixon says. "That does not count the cases that they handled which were opened prior to that. In all, we handled about 225,000 cases."
According to Dixon, who spoke with The Independent on Wednesday morning, the state currently provides $33 million in funding for the program. Leger's bill would provide the additional funding under a formula based on the number of attorneys working in the district courts. Dixon says the state provides the bulk of the funding for the public defender program. If Leger's bill wins approval, the state's share of funding for the program would rise from 55 percent to 65 percent.
Dixon says the system has been suffering from steady declines in funding from local sources, primarily traffic tickets.
"There's no connection between traffic fines and the people we represent, but that is the primary source of our local funding," Dixon explains. "We've seen a steady decline in local support since 2009."
Dixon says Leger's bill will enable local public defender offices to avoid service cuts similar to those two years ago that nearly shut down the system.
The right to legal counsel is a constitutional right. Earlier this year, Dixon, Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Public Defender Board were named in a class action lawsuit that charged that chronic underfunding of the public defender program denied Louisiana citizens that right.
The lawsuit was filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by two private firms and two nonprofit groups, including the Louisiana law firm Jones Walker, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and the Washington, D.C. law firm Davis, Polk & Wardell.
Michael Carter, the plaintiff in the suit filed in February, says he never met with his court-assigned public defender for more than a year and a half while awaiting trial.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been a participant in the Justice Reinvestment Task Force work on the criminal justice system over the past year. Dixon has been a participant in the task force as well.
Dixon says additional funding for the public defender program was among the reforms considered by the task force. He anticipates it will be part of future recommendations even though it did not make the cut this year.
"I expect that this will be a multi-year process and my hope is that the public defender program will get more attention as this progresses," Dixon explains. "This year, the focus was on reducing the number of people we incarcerate. We know that the work of the task force will continue — there's the task force that will be created to look at creating a felony class system here. It's a huge system, it's tentacles impact so much of our state. Changing it is not a one-year process."
Dixon says he cannot comment on the suit over funding for the public defender program because he is a defendant in it.
The House convenes at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.