Sitting in his office just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, Plaquemines Parish Public Defender Matthew Robnett had a lot of work to do for someone getting ready to shut down his office, possibly for good.
There were no personal effects in boxes yet, and there were a slew of requests to withdraw from cases he still needed to file in 25th Judicial District Court.
But Robnett, fellow attorney Clarke Beljean and office assistant Mandy Buie had learned earlier in the day that there’s enough money for Buie to stay on through June 30, the end of the fiscal year, serving as institutional continuity and a lifeline to defendants still in jail awaiting their day in court.
“Part of the reason we’re glad we’re going to be able to keep Mandy on is she’s going to be able to monitor who’s in jail, so they won’t get lost in the system,” Robnett said.
Court-appointed attorneys for poor defendants will have access to relevant case files and will be able periodically to assert defendants’ right not to be held indefinitely.
Robnett was still working out how to assert that right on behalf of his clients in the very motions he had to file to withdraw from their cases.
On Tuesday, Robnett found out that $50,000 the state Public Defender Board had set aside to get the cash-strapped Plaquemines office through June is no longer there. And with the state’s dire fiscal condition, next year looks even worse.
“To come back to two lawyers and an office manager (in July), I think we’d be back under a restriction of service by August,” Robnett said. “We’ll burn through whatever (money) is there like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Plaquemines’ case is not unique. Many public defenders offices around the state have found the state’s system of funding their offices largely by court fees and traffic tickets insufficient to handle their case loads.
But Wednesday was Robnett’s turn to experience the dreaded day of reckoning firsthand.
“There are some (cases) that have been out there for a long time that I’ll at least wrap up if I can,” he said. “But I just don’t know if it’s going to be financially viable or not.”
Robnett said he knows there is a good chance he’ll have to abandon his post permanently for private practice if the office stays closed as long as he fears it could.
“Even if you feel like you’ve done all you can to keep the doors open, it feels terrible to be the person in charge when the doors close,” he said.
In the short term, local government could supply some funding for the office. In the longer term, the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a federal lawsuit against the state board and the New Orleans Public Defenders Office, targeting Louisiana’s unique system for funding public defenders.
However, the only real hope for this year or next in Plaquemines is help from local government. It’s unclear what Robnett’s office can expect. He said he and Beljean will attend next week’s Parish Council meeting and plead their case.
Robnett said state funding for the Public Defender Board is considered an “easy cut” by some, but he said the cost of holding prisoners for months and the state’s exposure to future lawsuits make it more expensive than people think.
“It’s not a money saver in the long run,” he said.
Then there are the costs you can’t put a price on.
To be charged with a crime, rightly or wrongly, is a position anyone can find themselves in.
“Anyone can find themselves wrongfully accused,” he said. “Anyone can find themselves overcharged. This does not happen to ‘other people.’ This happens to you, to your family, your friends … and our job is to be the bulwark against that.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.