Public defense threatened with fiscal collapse
The Louisiana Public Defender Board has long claimed their offices are dangerously underfunded, but now the financial blow dealt by the coronavirus pandemic could threaten the entire system.
Public defender districts largely rely on court-generated fines and fees, such as conviction costs and traffic ticket payments. As COVID-19 has shuttered courthouses across the state or severely restricted their services, those critical fines and fees are now in jeopardy.
“Because of closures due to the pandemic, we’re facing a month — going on another month — of zero revenue from our primary funding source,” said State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns.
Criminal defense leaders have argued for years that such an unstable revenue stream endangers the constitutional rights of poor people to receive legal help when accused of a crime.
In an attempt to keep these rights intact, the public defender board, which has been meeting almost weekly via Zoom, has asked district defenders to nip and tuck spending where possible. In response, at least 23 of the 42 districts have furloughed staff or reduced salaries.
And while certain jurisdictions are easing the number of inmates in crowded jails awaiting trial, many cases assigned before the outbreak remain open.
District 15 Defender G. Paul Marx, for instance, trimmed $250,000 from his budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. His district, which covers Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, sees roughly 8,000 new felonies annually.
“The failure of funding means that our communities are threatened with delays for incarcerated people,” Marx said. “Delays for defendants ready to put their past behind them and … crime victims looking for ‘closure’ in a system underfunded at every level.”
District defenders have noted their attorneys, who are overburdened with high caseloads, will now have to do the same jobs for a fraction of their current salaries, perhaps while shouldering cases redistributed after colleagues are furloughed.
“There’s a tremendous human cost,” said District Defender David E. Marcantel, who oversees Districts 13 in Evangeline Parish and 31 in Jefferson Davis Parish. “If I lay off one of these people, I can’t leave their clients unrepresented: I’ve got to immediately take all of those (cases) and reassign them to another attorney.”
The board is also exploring other avenues in its quest to keep the districts solvent. The board has already frozen spending for expert witnesses, frequently used in death penalty cases. In the meantime, some board members are eyeing longstanding contracts with nonprofits for the chopping block.
In early board discussions, Starns proposed cutting contracts with nonprofits that represent individuals facing a sentence of juvenile life without parole — a sentence ruled unconstitutional in all but the rarest of cases by the U.S. Supreme Court. The move would save $335,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, rerouting the money back to the districts.
While the measure was ultimately tabled until a later meeting, the conversation has left some nonprofit leaders uncertain of their future.
“We’re looking at it on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis,” said Richard Bourke, director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, which has partnered with state public defense for decades.
Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said his office is the largest state provider of representation to individuals facing juvenile life without parole. He said he understands the need for cuts, but worries about his clients since the board’s debate.
“That was quite alarming,” Clark-Rizzio said. “These are individuals, some of them are teenagers who are facing first-degree murder charges, some of them older — all of them are facing the second most extreme sentence in the state behind death penalty.”
Whether they involve newly sentenced juveniles or grown men who were sentenced as children and have spent decades behind bars, these “JLWOP” cases are notoriously complex and expensive.
Should the board decide to cut contracts with the three nonprofits that represent JLWOP clients, the cases would go back to the cash-strapped districts where they originated, Clark-Rizzio said.
Flozell Daniels Jr., the juvenile justice advocate on the board, is concerned the districts don’t have the capacity to carry these cases — and not for lack of passion or energy. While some district defenders like Marx say they will gladly take on the JLWOP cases returned to them, Daniels fears smaller districts will struggle to balance a new, considerably heavier load on top of their current client lists.
“We are not going to, willingly as a board, vote to eliminate contracts that provide constitutionally mandated services, no more than we’re going to close districts down just because they’re running out of money,” Daniels said.
So far, district mitigation plans and emergency reserve funds appear to be enough to keep the public defense system operational to the end of the fiscal year, Starns said. He added that the board is still evaluating its options in respect to cuts and reviewing the entire system. Nonprofits are also being asked to scale back their budgets.
But starting July 1, Starns and his colleagues will face the same pressing problems in a drastically altered economic climate.
“I would hope that the Legislature and others can get together and come to a funding source that is reliable, sustainable and sufficient,” Starns said. “And maybe the courthouse closures caused by the pandemic will highlight what people are talking about when we say it is inadequate.”