On this date in 1787, the blueprint for a young nation was signed as the Constitutional Convention came to a close in Philadelphia. Two hundred twenty-seven years later, we still abide by and cherish the rights granted by our Constitution, not least our freedom of speech and right to bear arms.
For a group so wary of injustice and governmental overreach, one could easily imagine the astonishment of our Founding Fathers to witness present-day Louisiana and our criminal justice system. It is fair to assume the authors of the Sixth Amendment would scratch their heads and wonder where exactly their vision had gone wrong.
The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee an individual the right to be arrested. It does not guarantee a citizen the right to be prosecuted or the right to an incarceration. The Sixth Amendment guarantees all Americans the assistance of counsel in their defense if they are accused of a crime. The defense counsel, which in more than 80 percent of Louisiana’s criminal cases is a public defender, is the only courtroom entity mandated by the Constitution besides a jury of our peers. So why are Louisiana’s public defenders struggling on table scraps when their criminal justice counterparts enjoy a feast?
Louisiana spends more than $3.5 billion annually on our criminal justice system, with well under two percent of that sum allocated for public defenders. This translates into public defenders with exorbitant case loads, low pay and hardly enough hours in the day to fulfill their constitutionally mandated obligations. Add to this the fear of periodic layoffs owing to wild fluctuations in public defender revenue streams and the result is a far cry from what our Founders envisioned.
Even if we move beyond any concerns of disappointing George Washington, Ben Franklin and company, it is beyond argument that inadequate funding for public defenders makes for terrible public policy. After all, who is in the best position to identify alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders? Who is in the best position to place veterans who find themselves in legal trouble with the services available through the VA? Who can best identify substance abuse treatment programs for substance abusers, health services for the mentally ill, or advocate so the punishment is not disproportionate to the crime? In the overwhelming majority of Louisiana’s criminal cases, that is the public defender.
The lack of public defense funding is not only a concern for the courtroom or an individual defendant; it should be troubling for anyone who pays Louisiana taxes. If our justice system is so weighted against the defendant, is it any wonder Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Is it any wonder Louisiana is a world leader in costly exonerations? Is it any wonder it is difficult to attract business to a state where so many otherwise able-bodied and able-minded individuals are unable to work because of a prior conviction or unfortunate plea deal? Worst of all, if we ask about the real reason behind our justice system, we cannot tell ourselves the status quo has made our communities any safer; in fact, all evidence points to the contrary.
After more than two centuries, the time has come for Louisiana to live up to the mandates of our Constitution and ensure public defenders have stable, reliable and adequate funding. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly live up to it. I’m sure our Founding Fathers would agree it’s better late than never.
John Burkhart is the campaign manager for the Louisiana Campaign for Equal Justice, dedicated to fair funding for Louisiana’s public defenders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.