Stable funding needs to be found

Published 1:49 pm Sunday, September 21, 2014

It’s high time a stable funding source was found for Louisiana’s public defense offices.

Many of the budgets of the public defenders offices around the state have repeatedly come up short. The local office is facing a shortfall once again. It was only two years ago that the office had to ask the local bar to take on cases because of a deficit.

The state Legislature appropriates $33 million to the state Public Defender Board, which then doles out the money to the local offices. In addition to the state monies, local offices also get funds from court costs, mostly traffic tickets. But that creates a problem because those can vary widely from year to year.

Local offices’ funding is also at the discretion of the state board, which decides how to split its $33 million: $17 million is divided among the 42 local districts; $13 million goes to nine nonprofit organization — $9 million to death penalty cases; and $3 million accounts for the state board’s budget.

The argument here isn’t whether using public funds to pay for defendants’ legal fees is fair. It’s not.

It is, however, necessary if we are to consider our innocent-until-proven-guilty system a success. Each defendant must have adequate representation when it is his or her day in court. That’s the only way the system works.

It doesn’t mean each defendant gets a high-priced legal team. Defendants aren’t entitled to a Cadillac defense, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said. They do have the right to a Ford Taurus defense, however, she said.

Finding a stable source to fund public defense is going to take some thought.

Defendants should pay for as much of their defense as they can. Making sure that happens would be a good start. Certainly those sentenced to long jail terms won’t be able to help much, but many of the thousands of people the Public Defenders Office represented last year aren’t going away for a long time.

Getting appointed indigent counsel shouldn’t be easy; it should be a process that ensures that only those who truly can’t afford a lawyer are represented.

The state or local government doesn’t have to break the bank finding the funds to pay for public defense, but a way to stop the cycle of budget shortfalls needs to be realized.(MGNonline)