A year after instituting a hiring freeze to cope with a mounting funding crisis, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender said Monday his office will stop accepting some new cases in both juvenile and state court come July 1 if the financial fortunes of the state and his office don’t improve in a hurry.
Mike Mitchell said that would mean the parish’s Public Defenders 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.
“I think it will clog up the system so badly that the courts will have no other choice but to start releasing people who are even charged with serious crimes,” Mitchell warned Monday, the same day the state Legislative Auditor’s Office released an independent report showing the 19th Judicial District Public Defenders Office is using up its remaining reserves.
For those who believe the man who has led the Public Defenders Office since 1994 is merely crying wolf, Mitchell assured them he is not — although his counterpart in the District Attorney’s Office is skeptical and believes public defenders statewide could manage resources better.
“This is a real crisis. This is not a manufactured crisis,” Mitchell said during an interview in his office. “I don’t get any satisfaction in telling the public we can’t continue to operate in the manner we’ve been operating, and I don’t think the public wants that.”
Mitchell is projecting a $175,000 budget deficit by June 30, the first end-of-the-fiscal-year shortfall his office has encountered during his more than two decades at the helm of the office. That office had $1.2 million in reserve just six years ago, but Mitchell said those funds have been spent.
Across Louisiana, public defender offices are complaining of shortfalls, mostly stemming from drops in fines and fees on traffic citations. Louisiana is unique across the country in financing much of its public defense through court costs paid by the guilty.
But some of the problem also stems from Louisiana’s larger budget shortfalls. Like Mitchell, state public defender Jay Dixon is holding his breath as the Louisiana Public Defender Board waits to see if the Legislature will cut its annual funding from $33 million to as low as $13 million — a devastating cut that would mean a loss in state funding of some $1 million to Mitchell’s office.
“We’re pretty much in a wait-and-see mode,” Dixon said Monday in reference to the possible massive cut to his office’s funding. “We’re hoping that won’t happen.
Mitchell’s office is among 14 of the state’s 42 local public defender offices restricting services they offer to indigent defendants because of monetary constraints, Dixon said.
But East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said part of the problem might be in how the state Public Defender Board spends its money, saying local offices might not find themselves in their current predicament if the board didn’t spend a third of its budget on a few private law firms to exclusively handle death penalty cases.
“The amount that the state board receives is virtually identical to what the state provides for all district attorneys,” he said Monday. “Some claim that the local funding the district attorneys receive from parishes is substantially more support than local public defenders receive. This claim ignores the reality that local public defenders get twice as much money from traffic and other court costs than do district attorneys.”
Moore said his office receives $1 million in court fines, $2 million in state government funding and $6 million in parish funding, while Mitchell’s office receives almost $4 million in court costs, nearly $2 million in state funding and no parish funding.
That amount of funding appears proportional, he said, because the District Attorney’s Office, unlike the Public Defenders Office, handles each and every criminal case. Moore said he is operating with three attorney and three investigator positions unfilled but cannot restrict his services.
The independent auditor’s report prepared by certified public accountant William P. Gaines Jr. and released Monday says the 19th Judicial District Public Defenders Office recognizes it is unlikely the office will have the resources available to operate beyond the end of June “at its present capacity.”
“The office’s revenue streams are unpredictable and remaining reserves were utilized in the current year to satisfy operating obligations,” stated the report, which was for the fiscal year through the end of last June.
Mitchell said the solution would be for his office starting July 1 to stop accepting juvenile or misdemeanor cases or those of anyone charged with a felony who isn’t sitting in jail.
“I hope to work with the Court and others to find a solution before these devastating steps become necessary,” Mitchell wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to local judges.
When Mitchell announced a hiring freeze last March, he said his office was eliminating six attorney positions, an investigator and an administrative position through attrition.
Mitchell said Monday he can’t promise there won’t be future layoffs as the state budget crisis worsens.
“I am looking at eliminating other positions,” he said.
Mitchell said one potential solution to the problem would be to partially fund the Public Defenders Office through the city-parish.