MONROE, La. (AP) - Ten judicial districts are expected to run out of money to pay public defenders by June, while 4th Judicial District has enough on tap to fund indigent defense through August 2016.
Monroe attorney Bob Noel said the public defender funding issue has caused an immediate crisis, and he predicts chaos for the courts if additional moneys or an alternative funding source isn’t found.
This isn’t the first time the Louisiana Public Defender Board has faced a crisis. In 2002, public defenders took pay cuts to keep the system afloat. In 1986, lack of funding resulted in attorneys - some with little criminal defense experience - being appointed by the courts to handle public defense.
The 1986 crisis lasted almost six months with some appointed lawyers having to handle defense cases for free. The current public defense system was established at that time with a new governing board to oversee finances.
Noel said the1986 crisis could happen again.
“We do not have enough revenue at the local level to support ourselves when the money runs out, so we’ll have to cut back services to only that which we can meet with our budget. And, when individual lawyers can’t take any more cases, we’ll probably see lawyers forced to accept cases for free and possibly handle cases they are not trained for,” Noel said.
Local funding is based on traffic ticket fines or forfeited bail bonds.
“The problem with traffic tickets is it all relies on people writing tickets and people paying tickets, and that’s something you can’t predict,” Noel said.
In 2014 the district received $1.5 million in special fees, which are collected by the Ouachita Parish and Morehouse Parish sheriff’s offices.
Approximately 90 percent of cases in the criminal justice system require a public defender, Noel said.
“Without public defense the whole courthouse would shut down,” Noel said.
If the 4th District has to rely on appointed attorneys, the docket will slow down, but a greater concern lies with the possibility cases could be reversed because adequate counsel could not be provided. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled defendants are entitled to adequate counsel, and if that cannot be provided a guilty verdict can be reversed.
Fourth District public defender supervisor Miachel Courteau said these scenarios are a worst case situation, but a possibility.
The state has a restriction of services plan that a number of districts are now using where they won’t take any new cases. That will be the option 4th District falls under if the revenue issues continue.
Fourth District receives 75 percent local funding and 25 percent state funding, but Courteau said the funding issue must be addressed at both levels. While state funding has decreased, so has local funding.
Collections started dropping in May, and Courteau has received a variety of explanations. The bottom line is less is being collected locally to add to the coffers for public defense.
“There are districts in worse shape than ours. At one point the state board simply gave less to those districts in good shape and more to those in the worst shape, but we’ve gotten to the point where there’s no districts that are in good shape to take a hit,” Courteau said.
A local criminal case policy board is looking at ways to improve finances to prevent a worst case scenario.
“They are taking steps to ensure fines are actually collected, and while it has not translated into impressive numbers so far, we are hopeful it will get fixed before we get into any critical situation in the 4th District,” Courteau said.
Fourth District Attorney Jerry Jones said it’s important to have a well-funded indigent defender board, and the DA’s office is working to improve the collection of fines, fees and assessments.
“Without a good defense system bad things can happen in the courtroom. We do believe if there is a shortage with the indigent defender board we are headed in the right direction to greatly reduce that shortage or eliminate it. That’s our goal. I believe in working with the IDB,” Jones said.
The state Legislature appropriates $33 million to the state Public Defender Board, which then doles out the money to the local offices: $17 million is divided among the 42 local districts; $13 million goes to nine nonprofit organizations - $9 million to death penalty cases; and $3 million accounts for the state board’s budget.
According to an Associated Press story, more than 40 percent of Louisiana’s public defender offices ran deficits in 2013.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found that 17 public defenders’ offices out of 40 spent more money than they brought in for the budget year that ended June 30, 2013.
Of those, two are in northeastern Louisiana. The 5th District office, which represents Franklin, Richland and West Carroll parishes, showed a deficit of $3,683. The 6th District office, which represents East Carroll, Madison and Tensas parishes, had a deficit of $7,811.
To continue operating, districts dipped into reserve funds, a solution the legislative Auditor described as a temporary fix that “seriously depleted most of the local districts’ fund balances.”
Information from: The News-Star, https://www.thenewsstar.com
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