Last Modified: Monday, July 30, 2012 8:21 PM
News that budget cuts have forced the dismissal of five attorneys in the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office can best be described as troubling.
Faced with a deficit of $240,000, Jay Dixon, who heads the local PDO, said he had little choice.
The office was actually staring at a $420,000 deficit before the state Legislature approved a bill last month by state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, that dedicated the extra money from a raise in court fees from $35 to $45 to help pay for attorneys for defendants who can’t afford them. Arnold’s bill initially asked for a $20 hike, which would have covered the entire deficit of the local PDO, according to Frank Neuner, chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. But state lawmakers amended the bill to slice the raise in fees in half.
Dixon said that cases involving a single defendant charged with murder, armed robbery, sex offenses and kidnapping will be reassigned to the remaining two conflict attorneys. Other cases will be assigned to private attorneys and to terminated public defenders who have volunteered to litigate cases at no charge.
The pro bono work is commendable, but it’s a small Band-Aid for the bigger issue of providing defense for defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
Neuner said one possible solution is to charge defendants who are too poor to hire a private attorney more money. That, though, won’t cover the entire deficit.
The bigger issue is that public defenders in the local office have been chronically overburdened. Some have been assigned more than 400 cases, more than double the nationally recommended average.
The case load and resulting backlog in 14th Judicial District Court became so bad several years ago that the late Judge Al Gray threatened to deputize every member of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association and assign them indigent defense cases. That sent seismic shocks through the local bar as many attorneys argued that their only experience trying a criminal case occurred during law school.
Absent any other solutions, it may be left up to the courts to decide how to move forward.
A lawsuit filed several years ago aimed at reforming how the state funds public defenders remains active. The suit contends that defendants who depend on the Calcasieu Parish PDO are denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial and may not receive an adequate defense because of the ridiculously high case loads that public defenders must handle.
So, it may be up to a 19th Judicial District judge in Baton Rouge to ultimately resolve this nagging problem.
If that occurs, it’s a stain on the local legal community and state lawmakers who have been unable or unwilling to solve this long-simmering issue.
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, Dennis Spears, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.
Posted By: Facts On: 7/31/2012
Title: The Real Problem
From a citizen's perspective, the real problem is an "all-around" issue. Meaning, attorneys these days are far more interested in dealing with the litany of frivilous civil cases where there's a chance to earn real and "big" money vs. taking on and dealing with criminal type issues/cases which the judicial system ultimately fails to impose adequate penalties. Hence the criminals receive meanial sentences, if any, and are right back where they were before--and the PDO is once again inundated with an influx of repeat offenders placed in the mix of pending cases.
The fact remains; if the punishment doesn't fit the crime, and the criminals know they won't do the time, then the system fails and the bank is broke.