Public defender staff reduced in budget-cutting
FRANKLIN, La. A shortfall of $227,689 for the 16th Judicial Defender’s District has led to attorney cutbacks and reduction in resources available to defend those that cannot afford a private attorney in the 16th Judicial District, according to District Defender Craig Colwart.
The 16th Judicial District is formed by St. Mary, St. Martin and New Iberia parishes.
Because of the shortfall, Colwart said he cut three attorneys from his staff, leaving 18 attorneys to operate out of the three offices.
Colwart also eliminated an office staff position and made another position part time. He has 12 full time staff positions including four investigators, two from St. Mary and one from each of the other parishes.
To prevent another midyear fiscal crisis, Colwart said he has submitted a budget that cuts $220,000. This puts his total budget for the three parishes at about $1.7 million, he said.
Colwart said four out of five defendants in the district are represented by public defenders.
He said that the public defender’s office was already running on a lean staff. Cutting back on attorneys and staff further decreases the time and resources available and could exacerbate an already undesirable situation.
“Our attorneys are dedicated and work hard, but defendants do not always get a top-notch defense,” Colwart said. “They are not getting the defense they should be given. There are innocent people in jail because of a lack of an adequate defense — more than you would think,” he said.
Public defenders are primarily funded through a fee imposed by judges on people convicted of a crime or who plead either guilty or nolo contendere, Colwart said. The state raised what district and city court judges assess from $35 to $45. Mayor’s courts, such as in Patterson, were not part of the $10 fee increase.
The district revenue can take a significant reduction if circumstances lead to fewer tickets being written, Colwart points out. That also occurs when communities switch to private companies collecting traffic fees rather than the courts.
Public defender districts have been significantly under-funded for many years, according to Frank Nuener Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
“Indigent defendants do not receive the right to counsel as it is guaranteed by the United States and Louisiana Constitutions,” Nuener wrote on the Louisiana Public Defender Board website. “Across the state, public defenders handle overwhelming numbers of cases against much better resourced adversaries.”
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said budget cuts in recent years have affected the public defender districts as well as many other programs across the state.
“Everything has been underfunded from health care to education to roads. It is endemic of where we are with the state budget,” Jones said. “But to find some other funding would be difficult.”
In addressing the issue of judges collecting fees for the public defender boards, the Louisiana Supreme Court observed in 1993:
“The general pattern has been one of chronic underfunding of indigent defense programs in most areas of the state. … The unique system which funds indigent defense through criminal violation assessments, mostly traffic tickets is an unstable … approach.”
Funding public defenders through a fee imposed on defendants found guilty or who plead guilty is unique to Louisiana, according to Colwart. It puts public defenders in the “illogical and inherently contradictory position” of getting funds, not when they win but when they lose a case for their client.
Jones said he would take a closer look at the funding mechanisms but he saw no solution in the short term. State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he too would take a closer look at the issue but offered no comment.
The fiscal deficit was revealed in a state wide Legislative Auditor’s report for the 2012 fiscal year. The auditor’s report reveals 29 of Louisiana’s 42 indigent defense offices, most often called public defender offices, operated at a deficit. They used fund balances to cover the deficits.
The non-financial auditor’s report was released June 9.