SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - A forum was held Thursday night to discuss the impact of dwindling funding for public defenders around the state, which some fear could result in criminal suspects walking free.
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 and a more stable source of funding - and soon.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board receives about $30 million from the state, but state lawmakers reportedly have no plans to increase funding for the board.
The lack of funding has forced 33 of Louisiana's 42 public defender offices to operate in what's called 'restrictive service,' including Caddo Parish, where the financial bind has resulted in the laying off of three attorneys and a secretary.
"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," said Pamela Smart, who is chief district public defender for both Caddo and Bossier Parishes. "If we have to make more cuts we are going to stop taking cases."
It's already happening in some parishes.
"There's jurisdictions where there are no attorneys to represent people, so they're being released from jail," and Smart warns that scenario could play out here.
In early April, a judge ordered the release of seven New Orleans inmates because they waited for months without legal representation. The public defenders office insists it does not have the necessary manpower to handle the workload.
During Thursday's Forum on Indigent defense, a panel of experts discussed the impact on the local judicial system, how it affects indigent defendants' constitutional right to legal representation under the 6th Amendment, and what can be done to stabilize funding.
The Forum on Indigent Defense was presented by The Times, along with the Shreveport Bar Association, LSUS, and Blanchard, Walker, O'Quin & Roberts. LSUS Chancellor Larry Clark moderated. KSLA News 12 is sponsoring the forum. KSLA News 12's Domonique Benn and Times Executive Editor Alison Bath asked questions of the panelists, which included:
Pamela Smart, Caddo Parish Public Defender
James T. Dixon Jr., Louisiana State Public Defender
Honorable Brady O'Callaghan, District Judge, First Judicial District Court, Caddo Parish
Honorable James E. Stewart, Caddo Parish District Attorney
Mark A. Cunningham, President, Louisiana State Bar Association
Honorable Sam Jenkins (schedule permitting), Louisiana House of Representatives, District 2
M. Thomas (Tom) Arceneaux, Shareholder and Director, Blanchard, Walker, O'Quin & Roberts