Legal offices struggle to find reliable funding _lowres

 

Standstill state funding, combined with decreasing and unpredictable local revenue, have forced public defender and district attorney offices in East Baton Rouge Parish and throughout Louisiana to all but exhaust their reserve funds, putting some offices on the brink of insolvency with no end to the financial funk in sight.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office, which receives a quarter of its funding from the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the rest from local court fees and fines, announced a hiring freeze last month and moved some of its lawyers around to reduce the burden on those swamped by excessive caseloads.

Mike Mitchell, the parish’s chief public defender, said a client waiting list could be on the horizon.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III also complains he doesn’t have enough money, saying he needs more resources to ramp up the fight against juvenile crime and domestic violence.

Moore’s office gets less than half of its funding from the city-parish and the remainder from the state, pretrial programs, fines and forfeitures, and federal grants.

Both leaders want to see the city-parish government pony up more for their services.

All public defender and district attorney offices in Louisiana rely heavily on the fines and fees attached to traffic tickets. Mirroring trends across the state, this has proved to be an unreliable source of revenue in Baton Rouge, as the number of tickets issued by law enforcement has been on the decline.

For years, critics of how Louisiana finances lawyers for poor defendants have complained that relying on fines and fees attached to traffic tickets and criminal cases to fund public defender offices is problematic. Some parishes end up with more money than others, while all offices are vulnerable to changing law enforcement tactics, which can result in fewer tickets or arrests. While the state funding for public defense has increased over the past decades, advocates argue it remains insufficient.

State Public Defender Jay Dixon believes Louisiana’s criminal justice system is at a fiscal crossroads, adding that corrective action is needed soon.

“Failure to fix it may prove to be much more expensive,” Dixon warned.

But at a time when the Legislature is grappling with a $1.6 billion deficit, assistance at the state level certainly isn’t assured.

“The system we have in Louisiana is certainly not ideal ... but you have to make sure you have something better before you dump what you’ve got,” said Pete Adams, the longtime executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

Dedicated source of revenue

Mitchell, who receives no dedicated money from the city-parish, said he plans to request support from the local government, particularly for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“The service that we provide is for the residents and the occupants of the parish of East Baton Rouge and for the benefit of East Baton Rouge,” he said. “Therefore, I think we should be supported, at least partially, by East Baton Rouge.”

By the end of the fiscal year, Mitchell said he is anticipating being $135,000 in the hole. His cost-cutting measures include eliminating six attorney positions, an investigator and an administrative post through attrition, and canceling the subscription to the Westlaw online legal research service.

Traditionally, local governments in Louisiana haven’t paid for public defender offices. In recent years, the New Orleans City Council has started supplementing that parish’s funding by about $800,000, while the Calcasieu Parish public defenders received a 50 percent reduction in office rent. But those situations are the lone exceptions, Dixon said.

The city-parish does support the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, providing about $5.8 million in funding, less than half of the $13 million annual budget.

Still, Moore said his office expects to be $700,000 short by year’s end. “They’re well aware of the course we’re on,” Moore said of city-parish leaders.

To cut costs, Moore has downsized his fleet of cars from 64 to 26, reduced newspaper subscriptions and is recycling toner cartridges. But there will be no restriction of services, like with the public defenders, he said.

Moore has complained that his office receives less state and local support than other metropolitan areas, despite being the largest parish in the state. In comparison, the Orleans DA in 2013 received $6.3 million in local funding, while the Jefferson Parish DA got $14 million.

“I do anticipate and am confident that the mayor and Metro Council will work to rectify our budget shortfall,” Moore said in a recent address to Baton Rouge business leaders.

But Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration hasn’t promised more money.

“We comply with our statutory obligation to fund the DA’s Office. We have no such obligation to the Public Defenders Office,” said William Daniel, the chief administrative officer. “In the event the Public Defenders Office makes a request for funding, we will evaluate their request in the same manner as all the other requests we receive.”

“The issue is prioritizing the competing needs of the city-parish.”

Louisiana’s dependence on court and traffic fees — particularly to pay for public defenders — is unusual. Twenty-eight states directly pay for at least 90 percent of indigent defense. Two other states, Pennsylvania and Utah, receive full county funding for indigent defense.

The Baton Rouge Police Department is the biggest issuer of traffic tickets in the city, which are handled in Baton Rouge City Court, and the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office receives a portion of fines collected on those tickets. Mitchell says the money his office gets from City Court is a major part of his funding.

But City Court records show the fees the Public Defenders Office received from City Court dropped from $1.7 million in 2013 to $1.6 million in 2014 and are projected to be just $1.4 million this year.

Dixon said the state’s public defender districts had a combined $18 million in reserves in 2010. Not so today.

The cash-strapped public defender offices in eight judicial districts, including the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge, are now on “restricted services” and that number could climb to at least two dozen — more than half of the state’s 42 public defender districts — by mid-2016, Dixon notes.

Many districts lack adequate funding due to the decrease in traffic tickets issued, clients’ inability to pay court costs and application fees, an increase in the use of diversion programs or a combination of those factors, according to a Louisiana Public Defender Board report.

Mitchell said his office has practically exhausted all of its reserve funds.

“Making it through June is going to be really close,” said Mitchell, whose office operates on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year. This fiscal year’s budget was $4.9 million, compared with $5.3 million last year.

Dixon said the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which he is in charge of, receives some $33 million annually from the state. About $17 million of that money goes to the local public defender districts. The state board also spends about $10 million on funding of capital murder cases. The board contracts with several capital conflict offices to handle most of the capital cases.

Dixon said smaller public defender districts would go broke if they had to handle even one capital murder case, which requires two death penalty-certified defense lawyers, investigators and penalty phase experts, among other things.

Adams says most district attorney offices in the state had money in their general funds as recently as just a few years ago, but now those reserves are either getting dangerously low or have been exhausted altogether.

All district attorney offices are seeing a little strain right now, he said, and some offices in smaller parishes, such as LaSalle, “are just dying.”

Adams says jacking up court costs on the backs of largely indigent defendants is not the answer.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip,” he said. “We can’t continue to load up court costs because this whole thing will fall.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

The 24th Judicial District Court in Jefferson Parish has sought to create that stability within the existing system. The court created a collections office that ensures defendants pay up. The office has captured $30 million in court costs, fines and fees since its inception in 1999. Those results have drawn the attention of the state public defender and the 19th JDC.

Collections have risen from $258,000 in 1999 to more than $3.4 million last year, 24th JDC Judicial Administrator Michael O’Brien said. Notably, the collections office does not handle traffic tickets but instead focuses on the fees attached to criminal cases, both felonies and misdemeanors.

“It benefits all of our justice partners,” said 24th JDC Chief Judge June Darensburg, a former public defender. “It’s just been a benefit for the entire system.”

District Judge John Molaison Jr., a former prosecutor and one of Darensburg’s colleagues on the 24th JDC bench, said the office is run by the court at an annual cost of $300,000, which is more than justified by the amount of money it is bringing in. The office’s collection methods include mailings, phone calls, civil money judgments, seizing of driver’s licenses and intercepting state income tax refunds.

Dixon, who is desperately trying to keep the state’s public defender districts afloat, calls the 24th JDC collections office the gold standard for collections.

Judge Tony Marabella said the 19th JDC was briefed on the 24th JDC’s collections department not long ago and is considering implementing such a program.

“We are cognizant of what they do. We certainly are looking into those things,” he said. “It’s just hard to change things. We’re trying to do some things on a small scale now.”

One of those things, Marabella said, is a program begun at the 19th JDC in September to collect millions of dollars in outstanding traffic ticket fines.

Ann McCrory, the 19th JDC’s judicial administrator, explained that several weeks after a person misses a court date, the person receives an automatically generated postcard informing him a bench warrant has been issued for his arrest. The card tells the person the amount of his ticket and how to pay it. Court personnel also are combing the court’s outstanding ticket file and sending out letters, she said.

“We have definitely seen an increase in the traffic collections through that effort,” McCrory said, noting that the effort so far has generated $60,000 for the 19th JDC alone.

McCrory said the 19th JDC is not set up for tax intercepts.

Molaison noted that the 24th JDC started with baby steps.

“This has been over a multiyear period of time,” he said. The court started using a payment tracking system in 2008, building that into the docket management system. It tracks the amount a person owes and when it’s due.

DA Moore, whose office prosecutes traffic offenses in the 19th JDC, said only 50 percent of those scheduled to appear on the daily traffic docket actually show up for their court date. He supports any effort to get more offenders paying traffic tickets.

Tickets issued by Louisiana State Police, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, and the LSU and Southern University police departments are handled through the 19th JDC. The East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders and District Attorney’s offices receive a cut of those ticket fines when they are paid.

Moore’s office receives no money from BRPD tickets processed through City Court.

Baton Rouge City Court Administrator Lon Norris, who said the court generates most of its revenue through traffic tickets, said City Court seizes between $250,000 and $300,000 a year in state income tax refunds from people who don’t pay their court costs and fines.

“The threat of that is out there,” he said.

City Court also suspends motorists’ driving privileges for failure to pay and opened up a satellite Office of Motor Vehicles office at City Court in October that is staffed by court employees.

“That’s probably our most effective means of collecting — suspension of driving privileges,” he said.