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Public Defenders Office to start taking cases again

Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 9:01 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

Local private attorneys will no longer be assigned indigent defense cases to be worked for free, an official said. Because of a cash shortage at the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office, private attorneys were assigned cases to be worked pro bono.

Jay Dixon, head of the PDO, said that because he is hiring two attorneys, his office will retake the cases. He said he hopes to have all the cases in-house by October.

“I had hoped we would be taking all the cases back by July 1, but my mouth got ahead of my brain,” he said. “Taking back all the cases at once is clerically not possible.”

He said no new defendants are being paired with private attorneys, although if the defendants acquire new charges, the attorneys may be asked to take those cases, too.

Because of a $240,000 budget shortfall, in July 2012 Dixon terminated the contracts of five conflict attorneys — outside lawyers who represent defendants who have co-defendants, thus can’t be represented by the same attorney.

A total of 888 cases were assigned to 240 private attorneys, who closed 350 of the cases, Dixon said. “The local bar responded splendidly,” he said.

While handing out cases to the local bar was always considered to be a short-term solution, Dixon said he is able retake the cases because a bill passed by the state Legislature is expected to provide the office with extra money.

House Bill 112 raised city and town court costs in DeQuincy, Iowa, Vinton and Westlake to $20, with half of the money going to the 14th Judicial District Court’s indigent defense fund. The bill increases court costs through August 2016.

Dixon said he expects the bill to raise an additional $80,000. With the money, the PDO is re-entering into a contract with attorney Robert Shelton and is seeking another conflict attorney, Dixon said.

“When I was told that the different cities in the parish were willing to help fund the office, I dedicated that money to conflict counsel,” Dixon said. “It’s going to be local money going toward a local solution, as far as I’m concerned.”

Dixon said he has a sneaking suspicion that a few of the attorneys who were assigned pro bono cases will want to keep them.

“Just judging by the responses we got from the local bar, they’ve been very professional, and it would not surprise me at all if one of them says, ‘Hey, I want to finish this,’ ” Dixon said.

He said he will oblige.

“As far as the last year, I’d really just like to thank the local bar and the parish for its support for our office,” Dixon said.

“It’s been a complete effort from our legislators to police jury to the local bar. It’s a combination of all those things that allowed us, really, to stay open this year, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude.”

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