The Public Defender’s Office in St. Tammany and Washington parishes will have to stop taking cases by May 2016 if new funding sources are not tapped, according to chief Public Defender John Lindner.
During a meeting of the St. Tammany Bar Association on Friday in Madisonville, Lindner recounted the dire straits the office finds itself in: With 20 attorneys to handle some 10,000 cases per year, the office’s approximately $2.4 million annual budget has forced him to dip into reserves that will be exhausted by early 2016.
One key source of revenue is traffic tickets, said Lindner, who has been the chief public defender in Washington and St. Tammany since 2012. His office gets $45 from every guilty plea, whether it’s a traffic ticket or a major felony, he said. The majority of those pleas are traffic tickets.
But with sheriff’s elections looming in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, Lindner said he expects the number of traffic tickets written in the district to drop dramatically in 2015 — suggesting, without actually saying, that deputies write fewer tickets before elections to avoid alienating voters.
“Times are tough,” he told the group.
Lindner estimated that the Public Defender’s Office handles 65 percent of the criminal cases in St. Tammany Parish and 80 percent in Washington Parish. If the office is forced to go into a “restriction of service” in May 2016, he said, he will inform judges that the office can no longer accept new cases.
In that event, he warned the attorneys in attendance, the judges probably will appoint private attorneys to pick up the slack by taking on cases for poor defendants pro bono.
Funding problems are not unique to the Public Defender’s Office in the two north shore parishes. The Orleans Parish office went through layoffs and salary cuts in 2012 in response to a budget crisis, and it faces continuing financial and staffing challenges.
T he problems are statewide, according to state Public Defender James Dixon.
By the middle of this year, 12 judicial districts — including some of the largest in the state — could have entered a “restriction of service,” Dixon said. By 2016, another 12 judicial districts’ public defenders also could stop taking on new clients, according to information provided by Dixon.
And, like many state agencies, public defenders statewide are being asked to cut their budgets for next year in anticipation of a shortfall.
“In May 2016, John (Lindner) will be forced to get rid of positions, services,” Dixon said.
Asking private attorneys, some of whom may not have recent experience in the relevant criminal law, to take on poor defendants’ cases could “raise all sorts of nasty constitutional issues,” he added.
The funding problems are endemic to a model that relies on local funding.
“Our revenue depends on tickets, which fluctuates,” Dixon said. Public defenders are forced to budget based on revenue streams that are impossible to project, he added.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Lindner said he is optimistic that with new District Attorney Warren Montgomery in office, the two sides would be able to work out a more expedient way of handling cases.
“The old regime was overusing the multiple-bill statute,” he said, referring to former five-term District Attorney Walter Reed and a provision in state law that allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences against defendants who have multiple convictions even if those convictions are for relatively minor crimes.
Lindner also praised the district’s judges for implementing a number of specialty courts, such as drug court and misdemeanor court, to help expedite cases.
But he still asked the lawyers in attendance to speak to legislators about the office’s funding problem.
Dixon warned the group against inaction.
“It will cost more money to fix this than it will to stop it from breaking down,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.