Cuts ‘devastating’ for public defenders

by Jeremy Alford, LaPolitics

As the maps indicate, the 15th Judicial District comprising Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes is running on fiscal fumes this year and next.

With $5.4 million in cuts slated on the state level, at least half of the public defender board districts across Louisiana will be forced into offering reduced services as others facing insolvency are pushed closer to the brink.

“There are at least 20 going under next fiscal year,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon. “There’s nothing we can do about it. Some will actually run out of money before September.”

George Steimel, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said lawmakers are being made aware of the situation. The cuts could result in the immediate loss of public defenders and, due to the lack of proper defense, put defendants in the position of either serving longer without bail or having to plead guilty just to get released, he said.

The timing couldn’t be worse. State funding accounts for around 40 percent of the overall budgets for public defender districts, with the rest coming from court costs, largely traffic violations. That has proven to be an inconsistent source; police have to write tickets for the funding to be there. Additionally, the growing trend of RICO cases in places like Baton Rouge and New Orleans are creating a need for private attorneys to be recruited to make sure defendants are represented individually, and the money has to come from the public defender budget.

“This is going to be devastating, no matter what the cut is,” said Steimel. “We have a structural problem with how we fund Louisiana’s public defense delivery system.”

Even before the administration announced its cuts, 27 public defender districts were expected to end the current fiscal year operating in a deficit, using one-time money to bridge the gap. Another 12 were slated to become insolvent or dangerously close, according to a report from the Legislative Fiscal Office. If there were no cuts at all next fiscal year, that number would still double. “There will be about 26,” said Dixon.

Only nine districts were expected to finish next fiscal year with enough accrued funds to post a surplus, but it’s unknown how the $5.4 million budget cut might affect that predicted outcome.

“The defense system is in free fall,” said Dixon. “The fear is that some enterprising lawyer might go to federal court and say this is not a lack of funding issue, but rather an entire system going south. Then the feds step in and have to fix it. We know how that’ll turn out. They won’t be gentle.”