Indigent defendants are short-changed
Louisiana has had a perennial problem funding legal representation for indigent defendants. State Public Defender Jay Dixon told legislators some of the state’s public defender districts are at risk of becoming insolvent in a year or two if the state doesn’t provide more funding.
Dixon made his comments to a legislative subcommittee that is looking closely at state funds dedicated by law to determine whether some of those funds might be eliminated. Some state funds are dedicated to the public defender system, and other money comes from local traffic tickets.
Dixon said those fines have plummeted statewide in recent years. He said in East Baton Rouge Parish, for example, ticket writing "has just evaporated." The Advocate said the state allocates about $34 million to indigent defense and most of that trickles down to public defender districts. However, it also goes to pay non-profits that handle defense in capital cases.
A class action lawsuit filed in 2017 challenging the constitutionality and funding structure of the state’s public defender system is scheduled to go on trial in Baton Rouge in January. Dixon said any failure to fund indigent defense could create more legal troubles for the state.
A spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that filed the lawsuit with two others said, "For decades, the state has allowed the public defender system to be underfunded and unmonitored. This statewide problem demands a statewide solution."
SPLC research has shown that Louisiana, which has about a quarter of a million indigent defense cases a year, is the only state that funds its public defender system under the local-state partnership. The Advocate said the public defender system to defend people accused of crimes has long come under fire for its seeming instability because of its reliance on parish-by-parish collection of fines and traffic citations.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, and co-chairman of the subcommittee studying statutory dedications, said the current structure prevents a full debate of the need for more resources.
Perhaps the best solution is to end the state dedication and local funding system and have legislators make annual state appropriations to the public defender system. Louisiana’s indigent defendants deserve the same equal protection under the law that defendants who can pay for their own defense enjoy.