The financial plight of Louisiana’s struggling public defenders is poised to get a fresh look with the kick-off of a panel to delve into how the state’s offices spend their money.
The Indigent Defense Review Committee was created after state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, pulled a measure during this legislative session aimed at canceling the Louisiana Public Defender Board’s oversight of death penalty cases, which annually cost a third of the state money allocated for indigent defendants.
This new team will study the board’s standards, fiscal priorities, composition and potential conflicts of interest.
It comes as a wave of public defender offices across the state, including the one in East Baton Rouge Parish, have recently restricted services because of funding problems.
“I think this group was formed because of the idea that ... we need to look at the operation of the board to see if there’s anything we can suggest that they can do more with the money they already have,” said Jerome Barbera, a retired judge from Thibodaux, who summed up one of the objectives of the group about an hour into the first meeting Tuesday. The team has eight members, including former prosecutors, judges, criminal defense lawyers, attorneys for state agencies and the legislative auditor.
One of the main issues discussed Tuesday was whether money spent by the public defender board on death penalty cases is a big part of why the organization doesn’t have enough money to pay for lawyers for other defendants. Former Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton raised the question of whether spending a third of the state funding on capital cases is a strategy by defense lawyers to “spend the state into submission” and get rid of the death penalty in Louisiana.
Funded by the Legislature, the public defender board receives around $33 million in state funds each year and spends about $11 million on capital cases. Those cases, which must be staffed by more experienced attorneys, amount to less than a half of one percent of the total public defender caseload, according to the resolution to create the committee.
But the committee’s mission also reflects the tug-of-war between those who believe public defenders truly need more money, and those who think the state supervising board might be mismanaging funds.
“I don’t know of another agency in state government, or in any government anywhere, that when they run out of money, or when they start running short on money, they get to say, ‘I quit,’?” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, accusing the defenders board of operating without any oversight.
“It has no incentive to be fiscally responsible,” he said.
That allegation is untrue, said Tiffany Simpson, LPDB’s director of legislative affairs. She said the organization has its budget approved by the Division of Administration, submits annual reports and is audited regularly.
Much of the local funding for the defender offices is from court costs such as traffic fines, but those amounts are unpredictable and have been declining, said State Public Defender James “Jay” Dixon Jr.
The committee, which asked to see more documentation on the inner workings of the public defender board, is scheduled to meet four more times before presenting its findings before the 2016 legislative session.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.