The 6,000-plus criminal defendants awaiting court-appointed attorneys in the Acadiana region will grow to twice that number or even more by 2017 if the Legislature doesn’t properly fund lawyers for the poor accused of crimes in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, court officials said Tuesday.
“We all hope and pray for our Legislature to address the problem,” Judge Marilyn Castle said.
Castle was one of six legal panelists who spent hours trying to convey to the public how deep the problem is and how deeply the three-parish 15th Judicial District might feel the consequences if funding remains inadequate. The discussion was held at the Lafayette Parish Public Safety Complex on West Willow Street.
Funding for local defender boards comes from Louisiana’s general fund, as well as from the fines and court costs levied by local courts on lawbreakers. Fines and courts costs, however, have been trending downward and bringing in fewer dollars to local districts.
And if legislators don’t pencil in more money for next year, it’s going to get worse: According to the state’s proposed budget for 2016-17, which would go into effect July 1, Louisiana would fund $12.8 million to pay for attorneys for the poor. That compares with $33 million in funding this year.
Louisiana’s budget crisis started to be felt late last year and into 2016 in local defender offices across the state, including the Lafayette-based 15th District office headed by attorney G. Paul Marx.
The crisis locally was exacerbated in February after Marx was unable to persuade the Louisiana Public Defender Board, a statewide body created in 2007, to prioritize state money so more funds would go to local districts, including the 15th District.
After Marx’s meeting with the state board in Baton Rouge, some 30 criminal defense attorneys who contracted with the local board had their contracts canceled. And many attorneys who work directly for the 15th Judicial Public Defenders Office resigned in order to spare others a pink slip.
Since then, court officials have had to prioritize where public defenders were deployed, with those accused of crimes and in jail receiving the highest priority. But once they’re out of jail, they join the thousands of others in legal limbo who are waiting for their trial process to begin.
“It’s really an intolerable situation … an unprecedented wrong,” Marx said.
District Attorney Keith Stutes said the cutbacks in court-appointed attorneys isn’t doing prosecutors any good because defendants have constitutional rights to legal counsel and to speedy trials. At some point, defendants — some of them dangerous — could be set free if the courts take too long.
Stutes also placed some of the blame for the local funding crisis on the state defender board.
He said the state board focuses too much of its efforts on a few death penalty cases. Stutes said the state board spends a large portion of its discretionary funds fighting the 35 to 50 death penalty cases in Louisiana at any one time, shrinking the pool of money available to represent 240,000 other poor people charged with lesser crimes.
“If this is not corrected, we will continue to be in crisis,” Stutes said.
Louisiana Public Defender Board Executive Director Jay Dixon did not respond to a telephone message left with his office Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.
Caitlyn Graham, one of Marx’s attorneys, said the loss of most of the local defenders has increased her case load from just under 200 clients to about 300 now. She said there’s no way she can provide a thorough defense with that big a load.
“It is an untenable and unethical situation to be in,” she said. “This is clearly antithetical to what the Constitution guarantees.”