In Plaquemines Parish, Public Defenders Office may close its doors next week _lowres

Plaquemines Parish Public Defender Matthew Robnett

After six months of cutbacks, Plaquemines Parish’s chief public defender told state and local officials Thursday that he will have to close his office and furlough his employees next week unless someone can find the funds to keep the doors open until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

In a letter to State Public Defender James Dixon Jr., Matthew Robnett wrote that unless new funding is secured, he, staff attorney Clarke Beljean and office manager Mandy Buie will be furloughed at the end of the day Wednesday, and he will request that he and Beljean be withdrawn from all their cases in 25th Judicial District Court.

Robnett said he also has been in contact with Judges Michael Clement and Kevin Conner and District Attorney Charles Ballay. He sent copies of his letter to the Plaquemine Parish Sheriff’s Office, the parish president and the Parish Council chairman.

“I’m optimistic about attempts, but I’m a little pessimistic about results,” said Robnett, whose office has seen local revenue fall by almost half in the past three years, mostly from a decline in traffic tickets, which provide most of the funding for public defenders offices in Louisiana.

The problem isn’t unique to Plaquemines. In Orleans Parish, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton began turning away serious new felony cases and withdrawing from others last month, forcing dozens of indigent defendants to sit in jail without lawyers and prompting legal showdowns in several criminal courtrooms.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Bunton’s office and the state board in federal court for failing to provide defendants with their constitutionally protected right to legal counsel, though the suit’s real target is Louisiana’s unique system of funding public defenders mainly through fines on traffic scofflaws and court fees on other defendants, along with some money disbursed by the state.

In many jurisdictions, traffic ticket revenue has plummeted, and the state board doesn’t have as much money to spread around as in years past.

Robnett said the court fees and traffic tickets that are, in theory, supposed to cover the bulk of a public defenders office’s expenses make up barely a third of his budget.

“That formula doesn’t seem to be working in this district,” he observed.

Robnett said that while he’d love to find a recurring source of revenue to solve the problem permanently, “if we’re able to find a solution, it will be a stopgap solution until July.”

The numbers Robnett lays out in his letter to the state board are stark: The Plaquemines office had local revenue of $137,922 in 2015, down from $245,302 in 2012. During the same period, the number of new criminal cases that landed with his office rose by 27 percent.

Robnett said it’s difficult to say what will happen if his office shuts down. That would put the ball in the court of the judicial system, and he’s hesitant to predict how things might play out.

Last year, Robnett’s office dealt with 250 felony cases and 300 misdemeanors.

“It’s going to be incredibly disruptive, completely disruptive,” he said. “And the people I’ve been talking to understand that, and everyone is trying to figure out a solution.”

Robnett said he began bracing for a shortfall in July, when he stopped hiring the outside attorneys he typically uses to handle cases in which his office might have a conflict of interest. He also cut back representation in the district’s drug court and stopped handling cases in which he defended the rights of parents who could not be located in cases involving children.

“It has been the goal of this office to provide capable and zealous criminal defense to all criminal defendants charged in our jurisdiction,” Robnett wrote to the state.

“However, Louisiana’s unstable funding stream, which is heavily dependent on the assessment, collection and dispersal of fines associated with traffic tickets and court costs for survival, has failed the indigent people of Plaquemines Parish who will no longer have access to their constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.