Sunday, March 20, 2016

Louisiana Public Defenders in Crisis //NY Times

In Louisiana the Poor Lack Lawyers for Defense
by Campbell Robertson

The constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere else is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana’s, where public defenders represent more than eight out of 10 criminal defendants. Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those who remain with caseloads well into the hundreds. In seven of the state’s 42 judicial districts, poor defendants are already being put on wait lists; here in the 15th, the list is over 2,300 names long and growing.

A system that less than a decade ago was set on a course of long-needed improvement is succumbing to years of draining resources, just as the state is facing a fiscal crisisthat could make things much worse. Judges throughout the state have ordered private lawyers to represent people for free, prompting objections from members of the private bar. Some lawyers being conscripted are tax and real estate lawyers without any background in courtrooms or criminal law: “No prior experience is necessary,” wrote a district judge in Lafayette in a recent plea for volunteers.

Here in the state with the country’s highest incarceration rate, hundreds of those without counsel are sitting in prison, including more than 60 people in New Orleans whose cases have either been put on a wait list or refused altogether by the local public defender’s office.

With felony caseloads already far above the professional standard, the public defender concluded that turning down cases was the only ethical option. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union sued over this in federal court.

With the state in deep fiscal distress, and with higher education and health care funding already slashed, further cuts to the public defenders are possible, and perhaps likely.

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