The Louisiana House has given final passage to a reshuffling of how the state spends its money on defending the poor.
With a 100-0 vote Thursday, the House sent the governor a Senate-backed House Bill 1137 from Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, to require the Louisiana Public Defender Board to dedicate at least 65 percent of its annual financing to local defenders of the indigent.
Parishes have reduced and restricted indigent defense services under strained operating budgets. In some recent cases, law enforcement officials have released people charged with serious crimes from prison because public defenders were not available to represent them in criminal cases.
Members of the House and Senate have debated a number of ways to fund the cash-strapped system throughout the legislative session. But Mack worked with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and people opposing the measure to gain support for his proposal and create a workable indigent defense bill that could advance to the governor.
Mack said the funding percentage may not be a large change from the amount of money already given to public defenders, but the proposal would guarantee that the offices would receive a threshold amount of funding each year.
Supporters said allocating a set percentage of the board’s funding to local offices would alleviate some of the stresses around setting their budgets. Local public defense budgets rely on unpredictable state funding, local revenues and court fees.
Mack’s proposal garnered some concern that it could steer money away from appeals of death sentences for poor defendants.
Opponents argued that a mandated percentage would split the limited money available in Louisiana’s underfunded criminal defense system and take away from important work. Local defender offices, they said, would not be able to shoulder the costs of defending death penalty cases, even with a set cut of the board’s funding each year.
But supporters arguing for the mandated public defender funding suggested that the state capital defense program, which receives about $10 million annually, may be too costly.
Ultimately, each chamber overwhelmingly supported Mack’s proposal with little debate.
The bill would also reduce the board’s membership from 15 members to 11.