Public defenders handle well over 85 percent of the cases handled by district attorneys. In 2014, district attorneys expended $140,000,000, compared to public defense which expended less than $70,000,000 for all defense services. This inequity, combined with over-criminalization, has made Louisiana the incarceration capital of the world.
Capital defense is expensive. An independent study by Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman found that since 1976, four out of five Louisiana death sentences have been reversed.
Since 2000, over 96 percent of Louisiana death sentences were reversed. In plain terms, 50 out of 52 people slated for executions had higher courts determine they should not be killed. Given this reversal rate, coupled with a high exoneration rate, an adequate defense is absolutely necessary and is why capital defense must be properly funded.
There is a frequently posited “$7 million” myth. That is, the public defense system ran as smoothly with a $7 million budget as with the present budget for public defense. However, it was during the lower funding period that Louisiana first earned the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate on Earth. This distinction comes with a price tag of a $700 million per year Department of Corrections budget.
Due to the lopsided funding between prosecutors and defenders and inadequate time, staff support and resources for defense, the jail and prison populations in Louisiana swelled to financially unsupportable levels, which will continue to drain the state coffers for years to come.
I believe the Louisiana Public Defender Board has done an amazing job of managing its limited fiscal resources, defending clients with disproportionately low funding. Through careful fiscal management, data collection and analysis, supervision, oversight, training and the creation of performance standards and guidelines for attorneys, the board has stretched its funding further and further each year.
LPDB is the most transparent and accountable agency in the criminal justice system, with financial and narrative annual reports to two legislative oversight committees. Program, district and agency financial reports from the past several years are available at the lpdb.la.gov website.
Present funding levels force a tough choice between maintaining district office operations or providing adequate representation to clients facing the death penalty.
The board has proven it has the experience and talent to manage this crisis. The question is not whether there truly is a crisis: The question is how has LPDB managed to postpone the crisis for so long?
chairman, La. Public Defender Board