Meredith Angelson

A disturbing new report from the Louisiana Public Defender Board predicts public defender offices in 19 parishes will be insolvent by next July. These offices will have to restrict their services, and some criminal defendants will be without a lawyer. Prosecutions could grind to a halt.

But what the report did not discuss, and what is rarely reported, is that public defenders representing children have been forced to restrict their services for a decade because of underfunding. In particular, children who are already serving their sentences — and still have a constitutional right to an attorney — are not being adequately represented.

Even the hardest-working juvenile public defenders could find it impossible to properly represent these incarcerated children. Heavy caseloads cause them to focus on clients who have been recently arrested. Required court appearances can make it impossible to visit clients incarcerated as many as six hours away.

Unlike adults, for whom prison is intended as punishment, children are supposed to be incarcerated only as long as public safety and the child’s therapeutic needs require it. A judge may then release them. But because Louisiana’s juvenile public defenders often do not have the resources to continue to advocate for clients serving prison sentences, hundreds of children languish in jail for months or years longer than they should.

Ryan is just one example. (A pseudonym has been used to protect the child’s identity.)

At age 16, Ryan arrived at Jetson Center for Youth, a now-shuttered juvenile prison near Baton Rouge. He had been convicted of stealing a car — his first offense. At Jetson, Ryan was a star student, earning A’s in all of his classes. He never broke a rule or received any form of discipline.

By the end of his first year in custody, Ryan had earned his GED, taken the ACT, completed a substance abuse treatment program, enrolled in vocational programs and joined the choir. The staff even named him an inmate ambassador.

Ryan had been rehabilitated and deserved to return home. But for a year and a half, his public defender never visited him or asked a judge to reduce his sentence.

He wasn’t released until a pro bono lawyer from the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights took on his case and presented his progress and achievements to a judge. Ryan went home after 27 months in prison. If an attorney had not come to represent him, his time in prison would have been even longer.

Virtually every imprisoned Louisiana child is too poor to afford a lawyer. Without an adequately funded juvenile public defender system, many of these children don’t have anyone to ask a judge for release once they are ready to return to their families. They don’t have an advocate to report dangerous prison conditions, to ensure that they are given rehabilitative services or to help them maintain the community ties crucial to positive development to avoid future arrests.

Without the help of their public defenders, these children are alone. And abandoning children in prison is what the Constitution is supposed to protect against.

Providing adequate funding for juvenile public defenders is not just the constitutional thing to do, it’s a financially sound decision. Underfunding them costs Louisiana taxpayers more than it saves.

A 2010 legislative audit of Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice found that imprisoning a child costs up to $700 a day. The auditors concluded that many children in state prisons could be placed in a less-restrictive setting, which would save the state $4- to $6 million annually.

A fraction of those savings would pay for the creation of a statewide unit of public defenders dedicated to representing children who had already been sentenced, whose advocacy could reduce the cost of imprisoning their clients.

Compromises must be made in every budget decision, but for too long those compromises have hurt the system’s youngest and most vulnerable population. Effective public defenders are crucial to the integrity of our criminal justice system, which must keep us safe and administer the law fairly to defendants. When the defendant is a child — in whose education, treatment, and successful diversion from crime we should all be invested — we have an even greater obligation to act in his best interest.

Meredith Angelson is a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans.