- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s public defender system represents more than eight out of every 10 criminal defendants yet many offices have restricted services and half could soon be insolvent, the state’s Supreme Court chief justice told lawmakers Tuesday.

And a failing indigent defense system could impose even more costs on the state, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said: “If we fail to provide adequate counsel at the outset, we will not be able to avoid those exorbitant costs associated with reversal and retrial of cases.”

Public defenders in 33 of the state’s 42 judicial districts have restricted services already, and half the offices are predicted to be insolvent within months, Johnson said in the annual update on the judiciary to the House and Senate.

“We do have a particular concern with regard to indigent defense. Approximately 85 percent of all criminal defendants are represented by public defenders, and it is our constitutional obligation to provide adequate representation,” she said.

A mix of state financing, traffic tickets and court fees pays for Louisiana’s indigent defense system. Traffic ticket revenue is falling and the state budget for public defenders has been slashed amid continuing state financial problems, Johnson said.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board took cuts during the just-ended special session. Indigent defense faces the threat of further reductions - along with other state agencies - as lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards grapple with an estimated $800 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the New Orleans’ and state public defender offices after the city office began turning down cases, saying it didn’t have the resources to do its job. The ACLU slammed Louisiana’s system of allocating money for indigent defense, calling it “inherently unreliable and prone to crippling shortages.”

Johnson, the state’s first black chief justice, also discussed efforts to shrink Louisiana’s large prison population, saying she rarely makes a speech “without talking about mass incarceration.”

Louisiana has the highest prisoner rate in the nation, with one in every 86 adults behind bars. Johnson said that carries a price tag of about $600 million for the state.

“We lock up more people than Iran, five times more than in Iran, 13 times more than China, 20 times more than Germany,” she said.

Johnson suggested more nonviolent, low-level offenders could be steered to pretrial intervention and drug treatment programs. The Supreme Court has been studying cost-saving efforts in other states, like South Carolina, to reduce the prison population.

She also suggested Louisiana could save money by treating 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes as juvenile offenders, rather than prosecuting them through the adult offender system.

Louisiana is one of nine states that exclude 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system, and Edwards is pushing to change that law during the three-month regular legislative session.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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