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PDO needs funding, but from where?

Last Modified: Saturday, November 03, 2012 8:02 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

There seems to be little debate that the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office needs more money. Where that money is to come from, though, is another matter.

The PDO fell $240,000 short of its budget for the current fiscal year, meaning it had to cut five attorneys. That, in turn, led to cases being farmed out to members of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association to be worked for free.

The PDO is funded through state money and local court fees. Jay Dixon, head of the office, said the PDO, whose fiscal year begins in July, has already received $322,000 from the state Indigent Defense Board and expects another payment in January.

In one of several indigent funding hearings that are likely to be held, Judge Wilford Carter on Tuesday ordered the Indigent Defense Board to pay $200,000 to the PDO.

Frank Neuner, head of the state board, said he doesn’t believe the order will stand because a representative of the board was not in the courtroom when Carter made the order and that any such legal filing would have to be done in a courtroom in East Baton Rouge Parish, where the board’s headquarters is.

Neuner also said that the rest of the PDO’s funding should come from local resources. He and Dixon cited the $700,000 or so from the parish’s jury and witness fund that the District Attorney’s Office and judges split each year after juries and witnesses have been funded.

District Attorney John DeRosier said that while the money is often termed “leftover,” the amount has remained

consistent long enough that it is budgeted for.

He said it also isn’t available to be used for indigent defense because it is 20 percent of a larger fund — the parish’s criminal court fund, which is supported by a tax. He said the wording of the tax would not allow it to be used for indigent defense.

The PDO actually would have been in worse shape, if not for a $10 increase in court fees instituted during the last legislative session.

But Dixon said that had the Legislature OK’d the $20 increase the Indigent Defense Board asked for, the PDO would have “at least had a shot” at making it through the year.

Neuner criticized DeRosier, also head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, for arguing against the fee increase before the Legislature. Dixon said that if the district attorney’s group “hadn’t fought so hard and got it knocked down to 10 bucks, we wouldn’t be having this problem.”

DeRosier said he and the association argued against the court increase because of a “key issue” of accountability.

“Here is the problem that we have with giving them unbridled access to the treasury to fund indigent defense: If we were to allow total access to whatever amount of money criminal defense lawyers think it should take to defend their particular case, how many dollars would that cost the state of Louisiana?” DeRosier said.

DeRosier doesn’t deny, though, that the local office is “significantly underfunded.”

“The problem is not local; they are making it local because they are cutting offices like Lake Charles that do a good job of protecting the rights of indigent defendants,” he said. “Now why are they doing that? They’re doing that to put pressure on the system.”

DeRosier said the funding the PDO gets from the board doesn’t match the 4.25 percent of the state population that Calcasieu makes up. He said the board spends too large a percentage of the $33 million it receives annually on death penalty cases.

He said there is talk around the state “of indigent defense trying to get rid of capital punishment in Louisiana through economics rather than through the Legislature by making capital punishment so expensive.”

“That’s where the problem is,” he said. “The state IDB is taking these millions of dollars and putting them into capital defense.”

DeRosier said that if an adequate accountability system were put in place, he would consider lobbying for more money for indigent defense in the state.

Dixon said he doesn’t care where the money comes from as long as his office is funded, But he said the parish has the wherewithal to cover the PDO’s shortfall.

Dixon’s current budget is $1.8 million, but to “really operate effectively” the PDO needs $2.4 million per year, he said.

“If we don’t have the money we need, we’re going to lose good lawyers,” he said. “Their salaries are better, their benefits are better. We’re just not on an even playing field with the DA’s office, and it’s not even close.”

DeRosier said his office has an annual budget of $6 million.

Dixon said his office doesn’t have the money to pay for its attorney’s continuing education fees or bar association fees. In addition, he said, its retirement program is tenuous.

The major concern is the caseload. His six felony attorneys, commonly called “line defenders,” are each handling an average of 578 felony cases this year, Dixon said.

The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends 150 or fewer felony cases per attorney per year.

Dixon admits that the numbers are somewhat inflated because of the time of year and because some of the cases were assigned as a defendant’s right to counsel.

Public defender Heath Dorsey’s caseload of 540 is probably closest to a true number, Dixon said, but still far above the recommended average.

The PDO’s misdemeanor attorneys are averaging 859 cases, Dixon said. The recommended maximum caseload is 400 per year.

“That is the question: Can they effectively defend their clients if they have too many cases?” Dixon said. “If you just look at your average docket, you can see that we have most of the cases.”

That is partially because of the economy, he said — people who once could fund their own defense now can’t — and partially because people abuse the system.

One solution that has been offered is partial indigence, which would require defendants to foot at least a portion of the bill.

Dixon said the outlook is grim if his office isn’t funded.

“Eventually we’re going to have to stop taking cases,” Dixon said. “We won’t have a choice.

“You’ve got to have a DA’s office with money, you’ve got to have a court that runs adequately, but you’ve got to have a defense system, too.”

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