Any way that you calculate it, the criminal court system is a labor-intensive business, from law enforcement on the front end to lawyers and judges and wardens on the back end.
Those costs are causing conflicts around the state and in the State Capitol.
In a dispute between the state’s oversight board for public defenders and the powerful district attorney’s lobby, a district attorney-backed bill will mandate a percentage of state funding to local offices, presumably diminishing the power of the state public defender board.
That new measure is unfolding amid a funding crisis for public defenders, with several offices such as that in New Orleans announcing it will no longer take some new cases because lawyers are not available to handle them.
All the time, public defenders are saying they are underfunded because of the state’s money woes, and district attorneys point the finger at costly death-penalty cases. Louisiana district attorneys may be powerful, but they cannot override the U.S. Supreme Court, which has added to the requirements for what is an effective defense in those capital cases.
And since a scandalously big percentage of the capital prosecutions are overturned on appeal, often because of prosecutorial misconduct, it’s a fight that is apt to be renewed every year, as finances continue to be strained. The state board does a good job overseeing local public defenders’ offices, but that’s not so popular with prosecutors, their opponents.
The new debates are likely to re-open questions of how necessary operations of the court system are to be sustained — thorny issues that were worked through a decade ago after a round of contentious meetings. Now, we’ll probably see more of those meetings.
At the local level, governments and prosecutors have financial issues that lead to conflicts. In Lafayette, the City-Parish Council voted to cut its contribution of $500,000 to the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, a decision expected to be challenged in court.
District Attorney Keith Stutes, who took office in 2015, argues city-parish government is required by law to cover all reasonable costs for his office. His predecessor should never have used other funds to pay for salaries and related benefits, because that masked the extent of the city-parish’s obligations.
“I decided not to kick that can down the road,” Stutes said.
We like that approach, as too much in government is based on short-term expedience. But what is the ordinary citizen to think of all this?
We see the public defense crisis, for that is what it is, as a challenge to order in society. If you don’t have a constitutional defense for a defendant with no money, you don’t have the public benefit of getting bad guys off the street, and keeping them away from us.
We do not object to the death penalty, but we smell hypocrisy when those who want prosecutions don’t want to pay for elements of the process that the Supreme Court has mandated. Now, it’s a political mess that ought to provoke a wider discussion of all the costs — capital cases and ordinary trials — of our labor-intensive court system.
The parts have to work together, or the system breaks down. And that fills up jails, further raising costs.