East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender said Wednesday that, barring additional state funding, he will lay off six staff investigators, reduce the salaries of several staff attorneys and investigators, and suspend the contracts of his seven contract lawyers, effective April 15.
“I think this is as deep as I’m going to have to go,” said Mike Mitchell, district defender of the 19th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office.
Mitchell, who noted the measures set to take effect next Friday will result in a savings of $156,000, said he expects his office to be running a $175,000 budget deficit by the June 30 end of the current fiscal year without the measures.
“My crisis is now,” he said.
Mitchell said he has requested supplemental funding from the Louisiana Public Defender Board. His office receives about a quarter of its funding from the board. The rest comes from local revenue in the form of court costs and fees.
“I hope all of this will not have to be implemented,” he said of his impending cost-cutting measures.
Mitchell’s office has four contract attorneys in the 19th Judicial District Court, one each in Baton Rouge and Zachary city courts, and a bilingual contract attorney.
They handle cases when the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict with representing a client.
“It is a shame that people in jail will be denied counsel and we, the lawyers, get blamed for that by everyone involved,” said Bo Rougeou, one of the 19th Judicial District Court contract attorneys. “Lawyers and criminals don’t draw much empathy.”
Mitchell said the salaries of several staff lawyers and investigators will be cut from 10 to 25 percent.
He had announced a hiring freeze in March 2015 to help with his office’s budget problems.
“It is with regret that I must inform you that the Public Defender’s Office is projecting an end of the (current fiscal) year budget deficit of approximately $175,000,” Mitchell stated last week in a letter to the 19th Judicial District Court judges. “As a result, the office will have to immediately institute certain measures in order to prevent this deficit spending and failure.”
Some indigent defendants will be given paperwork on how to handle their cases if a public defender cannot be appointed to represent them.
Mitchell said he will maintain two staff investigators assigned for serious district court cases, and his intake investigators at East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court and Baton Rouge City Court will remain there.
Mitchell said his office has reduced its expenditures for the current fiscal year by 11 percent compared to the funds expended in the previous fiscal year, but revenue for the current fiscal year is projected to be 15 percent less than what was received in the prior fiscal year.
Mitchell warned last month that his office will stop accepting some new cases in both juvenile and state court come July 1 if the financial outlook for the state and his office don’t turn around — meaning the office would only handle cases where defendants are jailed on serious felony charges, pushing everyone else to a waiting list where they would be assigned attorneys as those felony cases are resolved.