The Plaquemines Parish Public Defenders Office will get a $30,000 infusion from the state, enough to put the two attorneys furloughed earlier this week back to work through the end of March.
Public Defender Matthew Robnett said he got word late Thursday that the Louisiana Public Defender Board managed to scrape together the money by canceling some contracts. But he said it’s only a stopgap measure — albeit a welcome one — amid a funding crisis affecting indigent defender offices across the state.
“It’s a Band-Aid, at best, and a very short-term Band-Aid,” Robnett said, two days after he and fellow attorney Clarke Beljean, the only lawyers in his office, were furloughed through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“I think we’ll find ourselves in the same situation a month from now if we don’t find help from somewhere else,” he said.
Plaquemines is one of many public defender offices across the state hard hit by declining revenue, much of which comes from traffic tickets and court fees. With a decline in speeding and other tickets, many offices, including the one in New Orleans, have been forced to lay off or furlough lawyers or otherwise restrict services.
What lies ahead in the troubled districts is unknown. Indigent defendants could spend more time in jail while their cases stagnate, and judges will be forced to appoint pro bono attorneys to represent some defendants.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit that is expected to challenge the state’s funding system, which critics say is inadequate to provide the accused with their constitutionally guaranteed right to legal representation.
“The board worked really hard (to find the $30,000) because they knew what a disaster it would be to close down completely,” said Robnett, who already had to cut back his office’s work at drug court and stop contracting out cases where a conflict of interest barred his office from representation.
Robnett and Beljean found out Wednesday there was enough money in the budget to keep the office manager on through June to serve as a resource to help any pro bono attorneys and to maintain the files of people still in jail.
Robnett had not yet had a chance to file motions to withdraw from his cases. Beljean had, but Robnett said he has notified the court they can stay active for now.
Word of the anticipated furloughs came Tuesday when $50,000 the state board had set aside for Plaquemines evaporated, along with almost $500,000 the board was forced to cut due to the state’s budget crisis.
And with next year’s fiscal outlook even worse for the state and the Louisiana Public Defender Board, Robnett said he still thinks his office’s best bet is a new local source of funding.
Robnett has been in conversation with District Attorney Charles Ballet and the judges at the 25th Judicial District Court, and Beljean will appeal to the Plaquemines Parish Council for help.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.