With more than half of the state’s public defender districts projected to be insolvent in the next 16 months, the cash- strapped East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office announced a hiring freeze Monday and is shifting some of its lawyers around to ease the strain on those handling excessive caseloads in Baton Rouge city and state courts.
Mike Mitchell, the parish’s chief public defender, did not announce any staff layoffs. But his office is eliminating six attorney positions, an investigator and an administrative position through attrition.
State Public Defender Jay Dixon said Monday the East Baton Rouge Public Defenders Office is the sixth district now operating under restricted services. The other five districts encompass the parishes of East and West Feliciana, Caddo, Bossier, Webster, Lasalle and Vernon.
Two more districts that comprise Winn and Red River parishes will likely enter into restricted service plans by the end of the month, Dixon noted.
“Baton Rouge is not alone,” he said.
Mitchell said his caseload redistribution plan involves moving an attorney from another section of the 19th Judicial District Court to the court’s Section 3, where his attorneys are handling caseloads in excess of ethical limits. State District Judge Mike Erwin presides over Section 3.
Mitchell, whose office has 47 lawyers, is moving two of those attorneys from East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court, where they represent clients in child-support cases, to Baton Rouge City Court to help alleviate some of the excess caseloads carried by his attorneys in City Court.
Mitchell stopped short of creating a waiting list for new clients but said he and the Louisiana Public Defender Board staff are closely monitoring attorney caseloads and could institute such a list if caseloads exceed ethical maximums.
“Despite the diligent efforts of the Public Defenders Office to reduce expenditures and increase revenues, the Public Defenders Office has been unable to secure the resources necessary to provide competent legal representation for all of its clients and must begin service restriction,” he explained in a Monday news release.
Some court-appointed attorneys in City Court and the 19th JDC already maintain excessive caseloads. Mitchell said placing a limit on caseloads is necessary because all attorneys are legally bound to provide competent and effective representation to all clients.
“This cannot be done when caseloads are so high that the lawyers cannot properly represent each individual client according to the facts of the case and the needs of the client,” the statement added.
The East Baton Rouge Public Defenders Office handles some 23,000 new cases a year and represented more indigent clients last year than any other public defenders office in the state.
“Because this is a funding issue, we have no comment other than to say that we support a fully funded justice system,” Baton Rouge Bar Association President Robert Burns Jr. said Monday.
Mitchell, in a Feb. 27 letter to Chief 19th JDC Judge Don Johnson, said if his office has to resort to a client waiting list, the most serious or complex felony cases — and incarcerated clients — will receive priority in determining representation.
Mitchell’s letter says the financial predicament that his office finds itself in is “due to our reliance on an unstable funding stream which is heavily dependent on the assessment, collection, and dispersal of fines associated with traffic tickets and court costs for survival.”
Mitchell’s office receives a quarter of its funding from the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the rest from local court fees and fines.
Dixon has said the local fees for public defenders haven’t produced the amount of revenue anticipated and simply aren’t keeping pace with expenditures.
An October report by the state board warned that 25 of the state’s 42 public defender offices will become insolvent by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1 and runs through June 30, 2016.
“Without sufficient resources necessary to provide the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel for the more than 240,000 cases represented by public defenders each year, many districts will be required to begin restriction of services … and potentially grinding the entire criminal justice system to a halt,” the report cautioned.
Restricted services is described in the report as public defender offices laying off attorneys to reduce expenses, “while the remaining attorneys will be forced to refuse new cases to adhere to professional and Constitutional requirements.”
The East Baton Rouge Public Defenders Office has a projected 2015 fiscal year budget deficit of more than $135,000. The office’s annual budget is about $4.5 million.
“Making it through June is going to be really close,” Mitchell said Friday, referring to the June 30 end of the 2015 fiscal year.
Mitchell’s office is facing a projected shortfall of nearly $666,000 during the 2016 fiscal year. The office is expecting a 16 percent decrease in funding from the state board.