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Editorial: Many deserve kudos for confronting PDO's funding, staffing issues

Last Modified: Monday, June 17, 2013 5:29 PM

On the campaign trail in 1959, John F. Kennedy noted that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters — one indicating danger, the other representing opportunity.

The same could be said for the money issues that have strapped the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office.

Through a number of budget cuts and layoffs, an able assist from the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association and more diligence about defendants who are capable of footing some of their attorneys’ costs, the local office charged with providing counsel for indigent defense has weathered for the time being the storm.

Faced with a revenue shortfall of between $300,000 and $400,000, Calcasieu PDO Executive Director Jay Dixon last year ended the contract for five conflict attorneys.

With fewer indigent defense attorneys available, the PDO called on the local bar to absorb cases. Two-hundred-and-forty attorneys responded by taking on nearly 900 cases. So far, they’ve cleared nearly 40 percent of the cases they assumed.

Dixon said had the local bar not stepped in to fill the breach, his office would have been forced to stop accepting cases.

House Bill 112 raised city and town court costs to $20 in Westlake, Iowa, Vinton and DeQuincy, with half of that money being dedicated to the 14th Judicial District PDO. Dixon said that should infuse $80,000 into upcoming year’s budget.

He said he expects an additional $30,000 to $40,000 to come from a $40 PDO application fee that defendants must pay.

Members of the 14th Judicial District bench have also been stricter in determining whether defendants have the ability to cover some of the costs associated with their case, Dixon said.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury stepped up and cut the PDO’s rent in half.SClBIssues remain, particularly with much of the budgets of indigent defense offices throughout the state being funded by court costs from traffic tickets. That revenue stream, often left to the enforcement discretion and whims of sheriffs and police chiefs, is too irregular for PDO directors to rely on.

Still, there are a number of heroes in confronting the funding and staffing issues of the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office, all worthy and deserving of a salute from our area.

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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, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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