Lack of State Funding for Public Defenders Leaves the Poor on Their Own in Louisiana

Sunday, March 20, 2016




By Campbell Robertson, New York Times


ABBEVILLE, La. — It was arraignment morning at the Vermilion Parish courthouse. Natasha George, who until recently was one of 10 lawyers defending the poor of the parish, stood before the full gallery of defendants.


“I’m the public defender in Vermilion Parish, right now the only public defender,” she said. “Due to a lack of funding for our district and our office, today we will be taking applications for our service but you will be put on a wait list.”


Over the next hour, a steady stream of people left the courthouse, nearly all holding a sheet of paper explaining that as the poor and accused of Vermilion Parish they were, for now, on their own.


The constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana’s, where public defenders represent more than eight out of 10 criminal defendants. Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those remaining with caseloads well into the hundreds.


Judges throughout the state have ordered private lawyers to represent people for free. Some lawyers being conscripted are tax and real estate lawyers without any background in courtrooms or criminal law.


Here in the state with the country’s highest incarceration rate, hundreds of those without counsel are sitting behind bars, including more than 60 people in New Orleans whose cases have either been put on a wait list or refused altogether by the local public defender’s office.


With felony caseloads far above the professional standard, the public defender concluded that turning down cases was the only ethical option. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union sued over this in federal court.


With the state in deep fiscal distress, and with higher education and health care funding slashed, further cuts to the public defenders are possible, and perhaps likely.


“It is in shambles,” District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg wrote in a recent ruling, in which he sought private lawyers to represent several jailed defendants. “Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now.”


To Learn More:

New Orleans Criminal Court Systems Accused of Milking the Poor with Exorbitant Fees (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Will Billing Rape Victims Thousands of Dollars for Medical Exams in Louisiana Finally Come to an End? (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Despite 50-Year-Old Supreme Court Ruling, Poor Defendants Still have Trouble Finding Lawyers (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Louisiana Public Defenders Sue New Orleans Judges for Refusing to Follow Law (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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