- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Civil rights attorneys Thursday said nine people held in jails across Louisiana should be released because they have been held for months without a lawyer because of the state’s public defender budget crisis.

The lawsuits on behalf of the nine men and women are the latest challenge for the financially struggling system to defend the state’s poorest. An estimated 85 percent of the state’s accused rely on public defenders but many offices have had to put people on wait lists or otherwise restrict services.

The suits said none of the nine can afford an attorney and they have been in jail for months without representation or progress on their cases. They’re asking the courts to hold hearings and release the men and women.

“If Louisiana was a country and did this, the United States would report them to the United Nations human rights commission,” said Loyola University’s William Quigley, one of the lawyers who filed lawsuits on behalf of four defendants arrested in Winn Parish. “This is just a total breakdown of the system.”

The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center is working with the other five defendants who were arrested in LaSalle Parish. The center filed their lawsuit Thursday with the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal after a lower-court judge rejected an earlier request to release the five.

“None of these defendants have seen or spoken to an attorney, and there has been no progress in their cases,” Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the center said in a news release. “They have no attorney to review evidence, file motions, prepare for trial or even to negotiate a plea.”

The sheriff of Winn Parish, Cranford Jordan, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. The parish’s district attorney, Chris Nevils, said he would have to review the cases first before commenting. The LaSalle Parish Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment. The parish’s district attorney Reed Walters said he had not had a chance to review it.

All of the nine are what’s considered conflict cases - where multiple people are arrested in the same case and the public defender’s office can’t represent all of them because that would be a conflict of interest. So they contract with outside lawyers to represent them.

But in many places across the state, as budgets have tightened, these conflict lawyers have been one of the expenses public defender’s offices have cut. According to the lawsuit filed by Quigley, the Winn Parish public defender’s office has gone from two full-time attorneys, a part-time conflict attorney, two full-time investigators and two full-time office assistants to one full-time lawyer, a part-time investigator and a part-time office assistant.

A judge in New Orleans in April ordered the release of seven jail inmates, including one charged with murder and another charged with rape, because their cases have stalled amid uncertain funding for their defense. Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his own ruling to allow for an appeal so the inmates are still in jail but Hunter said the lack of adequate defense and the languishing of the cases violate the Sixth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In western Louisiana thousands of people are on a wait list for a public defender because the office there has had so many layoffs.

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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