LA public defender funding crisis means more cuts locally

LA public defender funding crisis means more cuts locally

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Louisiana's budget crisis has added insult to injury to a public defender system that's financially broke.

That's leading to more and more cuts and layoffs in those offices statewide.

"Worst-case scenario is, at some point in time, we end up literally locking the doors and there is no one in the courtroom to take a case," said Pamela Smart, the district public defender in Caddo Parish.

A lack of funding has forced 33 of Louisiana's 42 public defender offices to operate in what's called restrictive service. That includes Caddo Parish.

In fact, Smart told KSLA News 12, the Caddo office has been in restrictive service the past 13 months. Now they're operating on what she described as a "wing and a prayer."

If you can't afford an attorney, the state will provide one for you.

But what if the state can't afford it?

"It's bad. I mean, we are at the point now where we may or may not make it to the end of this fiscal year," conceded Smart.

Smart said she laid off 3 attorneys and a secretary last month. Overall staffing now is down by a third from recent years.

"We went from 3 attorneys per each criminal section in District Court down to 2, which means they're carrying probably anywhere from 280 to 320 cases apiece."

Smart said she fears what a worst-case scenario might look like in Caddo. "There's jurisdictions where there are no attorneys to represent people, so they're being released from jail."

That's because the 6th Amendment guarantees all defendants have the right to a speedy trial and legal defense. That's also why private attorneys sometimes are being appointed their cases by Caddo judges. They then are paid for their service through the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

Shreveport private defense attorney Tom Arceneaux explained to KSLA News 12 what happens if that funding runs out. "If there is no payment for overhead and out-of-pocket expenses for appointed counsel, then the prosecution is not permitted to proceed."

With a major source of public defender funding coming from traffic tickets and court fees, both of which are way down statewide, critics say the system needs a major overhaul now.

Louisiana is the only state in the country that relies on traffic tickets and court costs for a major portion of public defender funding. But those revenue can be very inconsistent. So, ironically, more criminal activity helps public defenders.