An effort to reshuffle how Louisiana spends its money on defending the poor edged closer Tuesday to final legislative passage.
House Bill 1137 by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, would require at least 65 percent of the state public defender board’s financing to flow to local defenders of the indigent. That could steer money away from appeals of death sentences for poor defendants.
A Senate judiciary committee voted 4-1 to send Mack’s bill to the full Senate. It already has won House support.
The debate comes as local public defenders in some parts of the state have stopped taking cases because of money shortages, prompting prisoner releases, lawsuits and widespread concerns about the state of the justice system.
Louisiana is spending $33 million on the public defender board in the current budget year. Bill supporters say the local public defenders need the money. They say too much is spent by the board on large, expensive defense teams for death penalty cases.
“When the money came to the local boards, we had no problems. We had no issues. We worked together. The money was spent wisely,” said Ricky Babin, district attorney for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
Opponents say more dollars are needed overall to pay for indigent defense and meddling with the board’s authority over the same level of financing won’t improve the situation.
“This really is not about the board. This is a funding crisis,” said the board’s executive officer, James Dixon. “The problem here is diminishing local funds, and nothing in this bill addresses that.”
The proposal also would reshuffle how state public defender board members are chosen.
Voting to advance the bills were Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; Norby Chabert, R-Houma; Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; and Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.
Voting against HB1137 was Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans.