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District Defender says outlook bleak for PDO

Last Modified: Saturday, February 09, 2013 6:24 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

A new source is needed to fund indigent defense, the head of the Calcasieu Parish Public Defender’s Office said.

Much of the PDO’s funding comes from court fees, namely traffic tickets.

After the state Legislature last year increased court costs from $35 to $45, District Defender Jay Dixon said he expected a 20 percent increase ($200,000) in funds. Instead, he’s foreseeing a 14 percent decrease.

While he said he needs $2.1 million a year to operate his office, he expects a budget of $1.6 million in the next fiscal year.

Income from traffic tickets will be the lowest in 10 years, resulting in the PDO’s worst income in 10 years, Dixon said.

Dixon said he is unsure why there has been a decrease in traffic tickets, but he says Calcasieu isn’t the only parish to experience a drop-off.

“Ticket fees are not the answer; court costs are not the answer,” Dixon said. “They fluctuate from year to year and are not consistent. I think there has to be a wholesale change in the way we fund indigent defense. The state Legislature has to figure out some other form of funding besides tickets to make sure our office runs properly.”

Dixon said it’s not a question of “if” but “when” his office quits accepting new cases.

“We’re going to hit a point where it’s unethical to take any more cases,” he said.

The PDO announced in July that a $240,000 budget deficit was forcing it to terminate the contracts of four conflict attorneys. It also withdrew from 400 felony conflict cases, which were given to the local bar to be handled pro bono.

There has been some relief. The Police Jury voted to lower the PDO’s rent, saving the organization about $40,000, and 14th Judicial District Court judges have been cracking down on partial indigence, Dixon said.

He said he had hoped to get to this point in the fiscal year and rehire some conflict attorneys; instead, he could be looking at cutting more positions.

The PDO is operating on a budget of $1.9 million, Dixon said. But some of that comes from money the PDO had from previous aid from the state. In 2010, following research by the Bureau of Justice and American University, the state injected $800,000 into the local PDO office to give the attorneys raises, create two life-without-parole positions and expand the conflict attorneys.

Dixon said the office hung on to the money “stingily,” allowing it some cushion this year. But that money will have dried up at the end of the current fiscal year, he said.

If funds aren’t found, Dixon’s outlook is bleak for the future of his office — restriction of services in six to eight months, positions cut and salaries lowered.

“Really, the only discretionary funds I have are in salary,” Dixon said. “I’ve cut everything else. There’s nothing else to cut.

“If nothing changes, we’re going to have a very different office next year.”

Dixon said the return of Judge Robert Wyatt from family court opened a new felony division; Elizabeth Traub will be the public defender. She leaves behind her more than 950 misdemeanor cases to be split between Jacob Richard, who has 900 cases, and Scott Rogers, who has more than 1,100, he said.

“At that point, we can’t take any more misdemeanor cases,” Dixon said. “I can’t hire anyone else. I have no money.”

If the PDO eliminates its life-without-parole positions, those cases would fall to the public defenders in each division.

“Those are cases that suck up your time, energy and resources,” Dixon said. “They eclipse the rest of your caseload.”

Dixon prefaces his doom-and-gloom predictions with “if nothing changes.”

“Not that things can’t change; there are plenty of ways to fix this,” he said. “But no one has given me any indication that anything is going to change.”

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