Last Modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 5:15 PM
Calcasieu’s Public Defender’s Office, beset by budget woes, may stop taking new cases. That may not strike the public as being overly important — the office provides counsel to indigent defendants — but it is.
Here are the facts: District Defender Jay Dixon said his office is operating on a budget of $1.9 million this fiscal year, a total bolstered by some one-time money from the state. Dixon expected his office, which is funded by court costs and traffic tickets, would see an increase in funding this year because of a Legislature-mandated fee increase, but a drop in receipts from ticket fees has actually sent his budget into a tailspin.
The PDO has had some help — the Police Jury lowered its rent, for example — but not enough to offset the revenue decline. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the PDO’s sources of revenue can fluctuate, sometimes wildly. Unable to control his income, Dixon says he can only control the outgo of his office’s money, which means he can only cut back or curtail services by reducing or eliminating salaries.
Right now, the lawyers in his office are responsible for some 3,000 misdemeanor cases. That’s too many to provide adequate representation for each defendant.
Dixon wants new means for funding the PDO — something more reliable and stable — and no one can blame him. Perhaps there is more his office and the courts can do, too, especially in how funds are allocated and in enforcing partial indigence. Some defendants might be able to fund at least part of their defense costs.
Lasting answers are needed, though. A PDO exists to guarantee fairness in our courts.
This year marks a half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent drifter who, without counsel, was convicted in Florida in 1961 of burglarizing a pool hall. Gideon petitioned the high court, arguing that because he had no counsel, he had been denied protection under the Sixth Amendment and had been illegally imprisoned. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon’s favor in 1963, sent his case back for trial with an attorney to represent him, and Gideon was found not guilty.
The importance of providing indigent people with effective defense counsel is greater than the outcome of any one case or the reputation or freedom of any one person, although all of those things are important. By ensuring defendants receive adequate counsel, we ensure fairness in our courtrooms, thus eliminating the need for some retrials. We also make a proud statement about individual rights in our country, and an emphatic statement about what type of people we are.
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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.