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La. has a critical shortage of public defenders

6th March 2017   ·   0 Comments

With Louisiana already bearing the dubious title of “prison capital of the world” and New Orleans being so closely associated with mass incarceration and unconstitutional jailing and policing, the last thing the state needs is more bad news about its criminal justice system. But that’s exactly what the state received when the American Bar Association released a study that said Louisiana’s number of public defenders — lawyers that represent those ensnared in the criminal justice system who cannot afford to pay for legal counsel — is critically low.

In fact, the study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Baton Rouge-based accounting and consulting firm Postlewaithe & Netterville concluded that the state is operating with less than 25 percent of the number of public defenders it needs to effectively represent the poor in the criminal justice system. According to the study, Louisiana needs 1,769 full-time public defenders but currently only has about 360.

The Associated Press reported that the study was conducted on behalf of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and was funded by the nonprofit Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

The study said that the state’s public defense system is currently capable of handling just 21 percent of the workload required to meet the needs of indigent defendants in the criminal justice system.

According to The AP, Postlewaithe & Netterville surveyed both private and public defense attorneys and asked them how much time an attorney should spend on different types of criminal cases to provide effective legal counsel.

From those surveys, they listed 10 types of criminal cases requiring various amounts of time, from a city/parish misdemeanor case that would require about eight hours to a high-level felony that could result in a life sentence and would require about 200 hours of legal counsel.

The Baton Rouge-based firm estimated that there are 147,220 cases annually requiring 3.7 million work hours per year. They calculated that such a work load would require 1,769 full-time attorneys working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks.

But when the firm assessed the working capacity of the state’s current public defenders it determined that the Louisiana public defense system employed the equivalent of 363 when full- and part-time work was analyzed.

With the state having to make major budget cuts over the past few years, the issue of slashing the budgets of public defenders’ offices across the state has been a major bone of contention at the State Capitol.

Cuts to the indigent defense system have been weighed against cuts to other budgetary items like hospitals, TOPS scholarships and higher education.

Despite the efforts of justice advocates, the public defender system has borne a major share of those budgetary cuts, prompting legal challenges both in New Orleans and statewide.

In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined two law firms in suing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on behalf of 13 criminal defendants, arguing that the state’s public defender system denies effective legal representation to the poor. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status to cover all of the indigent defendants charged in non-capital crimes in Louisiana. Kristen Clarke, who heads the Lawyers’ Committee, told The Associated Press that as many as 20,000 defendants could be affected by the outcome.

That case was filed in state court.

Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking a court-ordered remedy for problems in the Orleans Public Defenders Office. While the judge dismissed the case, he also said that the Louisiana Legislature is “failing miserably” at upholding its obligation to provide defendants with competent lawyers. The judge added that the federal court can’t become the local courts’ “overseer.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, told The Louisiana Weekly. “Historically, we have needed the federal government to compel local and state elected officials and agencies to uphold the U.S. Constitution. That’s why there has been this big push from the Right for states’ rights — the powers that be want people of color and the poor to be at the mercy of the infamous one percent.

“We need the federal courts more than ever to ensure that the laws of the land are followed by all segments of society, not just the poor or the working class.”

This article originally published in the March 6, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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