Bill reroutes support for public defenders  

The American Press

Legislation increasing the amount of public defender money going from the state office to local public defenders by only 5 percent is creating concern among those groups defending difficult criminal cases. Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, is sponsor of House Bill 167 that requires the Louisiana Public Defender Board to automatically send 70 percent of its funding to local public defender offices each year.

The board is already sending 65 percent of its funding to those local offices, but the 5 percent totals about $1.7 million, according to a report in The Advocate. Mack said he is bringing the law because district attorneys are complaining the public defender offices aren’t staffed well enough for the courts to hear cases in a timely manner. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association, however, said it isn’t endorsing Mack’s bill.

Organizations affected by that 5 percent reduction include the Innocence Project New Orleans, the Louisiana Appellate Project and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. 

The Innocence Project works to overturn wrongful convictions. The Appellate Project handles appeals that involve people who aren’t facing the death penalty but can’t afford their own attorney. The Children’s Rights Center represents juveniles and people convicted as juveniles.

The director of the Innocence Project said Mack’s bill would devastate and likely shutter her organization. She said it has 3,000 outstanding requests for help from people in prison.

King Alexander, a Lake Charles public defender who works on life without parole cases, told the committee hearing Mack’s legislation public defenders around the state depend on nonprofits to handle cases that they don’t have the staff or resources to carry.

Legislators have refused through the years to set up a proper funding system for public defenders. The Advocate said unlike anywhere else in the country Louisiana public defender offices are primarily funded with fees attached to local traffic tickets. However, those fees are declining because the fees are being diverted into a pretrial program operated by local district attorneys.

The proper funding of local public defender offices will never happen until legislators accept the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that every defendant, however unpopular some of them may be, are entitled to adequate representation. 

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 Crystal Stevenson, John GuidrozJim Beam and Mike Jones.