Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Mississippi is next. Harsh justice is the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. The first "black code" was in Louisiana under French rule. Underfunding of public criminal defense is not a southern monopoly. New York and Pennsylvania are among many states with severely deficient systems of public defense. - gwc
New Orleans Puts Poor on ‘Waiting List’ for Lawyers, Suit Alleges
by Richard Fausset // New York Times
The cash-starved public defender’s office in New Orleans faces “chronic underfunding,” a federal lawsuit contends, a situation that has led to poor people arrested in connection with crimes being placed on a “waiting list,” leaving them in jail without access to lawyers.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in New Orleans by the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that Louisiana relies on a “dysfunctional funding scheme” to pay for its public defender program. The system, unique in the nation, depends in great part on fees assessed on traffic tickets. Critics call the funding source highly unreliable.
Without access to a lawyer, the lawsuit says, the plaintiffs in the suit, Darwin Yarls Jr., Leroy Shaw Jr. and Douglas Brown, who were arrested on separate felony charges, had no one to challenge the arrest and bail conditions, investigate the charges or negotiate with prosecutors.
The suit follows a declaration on Monday by the Orleans Public Defenders office that it would begin to refuse some felony cases — including attempted murder, some kinds of rape and armed robbery — because it was underfunded and overloaded with cases.
The lawsuit, filed late Thursday, said that on July 1, the office imposed a hiring freeze because of a $1 million shortfall from the previous fiscal year and then lost a “significant number of attorneys.” That in turn, led to rising caseloads for the remaining lawyers that was “well above” standards set by the American Bar Association.
Named as defendants are Derwyn Bunton, the chief district defender for Orleans Parish, and James T. Dixon Jr., the Louisiana state public defender. But both men have said that the current funding plan is flawed.
Louisiana’s troubled public defender program was overhauled as civic reforms swept the state after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mr. Dixon said the state established the Louisiana Public Defender Board in 2007, which set more stringent standards for public defenders’ offices. These standards required more training and the hiring of more lawyers, investigators and support staff members.
“It comes at a cost,” Mr. Dixon said. “Now our fear is that we’re going to be sliding right back to where we were.”
The other glaring problem, Mr. Dixon said, is the unreliable stream of money from parking tickets. He said that the Legislature does provide a yearly appropriation, but that a fee attached to parking tickets and other violations constitutes the bulk of the funding for local indigent defense.
In 2012, Mr. Dixon said, the Legislature agreed to increase the fee that the offices receive from parking tickets and other violations to $45 from $35. But the number of tickets has plummeted since 2009. As a result, he said, 12 of the state’s 42 public defender districts have taken steps to deal with budget shortfalls and case overloads. The steps, which vary from office to office, include instituting waiting lists and hiring freezes, and refusing some new cases.
The reliance on fees, Mr. Bunton said on Friday morning, “is inadequate, unreliable and unstable.”