In New Orleans and across Louisiana, public defenders are starting off the new fiscal year on better footing.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature held steady the total amount of funding the state kicks in for indigent defense, while voting to shift more of that $32 million to the front lines.
But the shift has taken a toll on the agencies that represent defendants in capital cases, both at trial and in years of appeals after convictions. Two of those outfits, the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana and the New Orleans-based Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, say their budgets have been cut in half, with each losing about $1 million.
A bill that Edwards signed June 17 requires the Louisiana Public Defender Board to dole out at least 65 percent of its budget to local district defenders, an increase of nearly $5 million from what the state board had been delivering to local defenders in recent years.
The biggest beneficiary is the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office. It will see a nearly $1.5 million increase in state money, bringing its total budget to $7.9 million. That figure assumes funding from the city stays level at $1.5 million, with a modest decline in revenue from fines and fees generated largely from traffic tickets.
The parishes of Vernon and St. Charles may be four hours apart, but they could hardly be mor…
A long slide in the number of traffic tickets written across Louisiana — the biggest revenue source for most public defender offices in the state — reached a crisis point last year. More than a dozen district defenders curtailed services, cut staff or turned away poor defendants, leaving more than 1,000 arrestees in Louisiana without attorneys.
Ultimately, the Legislature spared those offices a steep projected cut in the state’s annual supplement to local funding, though advocates note that a largely “user-funded” system remains shaky, with reform elusive.
In Orleans Parish, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton described “a burst of resources that’s going to delay and mitigate some bad things.”
The extra cash will mean an end to a hiring freeze and other stiff cutbacks that Bunton resorted to over the past year to grapple with a severe budget shortfall.
The added money will allow him to add perhaps eight lawyers to his depleted staff and to beef up contracts for private attorneys to handle cases in which his office has a conflict, Bunton said.
“The good news is we’re getting an increase,” Bunton said. “But because of the problems created over the last year, we’ll be dealing with a backlog of wait-listed and some refused cases.”
In January, Bunton’s office began turning away scores of violent felony cases, citing an overworked staff and the loss of experienced attorneys in his office.
Facing a budget shortfall that has placed the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office at the …
The dire budget picture prompted one Orleans Parish judge to order the release of seven inmates accused of violent crimes, citing a lack of money to represent them — a ruling that has since been blocked on appeal.
As it stood Friday, 54 indigent defendants remained on waiting lists for lawyers in New Orleans, according to figures provided by Bunton’s office. They have gone without lawyers for as long as five months, though most have been waiting for shorter periods.
That list has been whittled down from more than 400 at one point. Some ended up hiring private attorneys. For others, judges appointed pro bono lawyers to handle their cases. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office refused charges in some cases, while Bunton’s office has made room for others.
However, Bunton bristled at the notion that the dwindling roster of unrepresented defendants suggests the problem wasn’t as bad as it looked.
“The size of the list should not be diminished by the ingenuity of desperation,” Bunton said. “Just because you get a lawyer in six months and a day doesn’t mean no harm happened. This is the Bill of Rights, not a line at Rouse’s.”
Chief State Public Defender Jay Dixon said most but not all local offices will benefit from the shift in state funding. But the statewide funding troubles are far from over, he said.
For one thing, he said, the money may not last the year.
It also doesn’t account for some 300 cases in which a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling demands new sentencing hearings for inmates who are serving life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed while they were juveniles.
Just a few of those hearings could cripple smaller parish defenders’ offices, he said. In New Orleans, some 70 juvenile lifers are awaiting new hearings, at a cost that Dixon pegged at as much as $50,000 apiece for cases that reach a full-blown hearing.
What remains, as district defenders like Bunton try to dig out of a fiscal hole, is a local funding structure that relies mainly on traffic ticket revenue, which for various reasons has slid by some 30 percent since 2010, Dixon said.
“I’m grateful to the governor, who basically protected our budget, but we’ve been talking about the shortage in funding for years and we’re still in the same place,” Dixon said. “The number of tickets keeps going down. As long as local funding keeps dropping, it’s putting lipstick on a pig.”
Whether the Legislature intended it or not, the shift of money to local offices has spelled trouble for capital representation, which saw overall state funding drop from $10 million to a little more than $6 million.
The Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana has scored some hard-fought victories in recent years. It helped secure the 2014 release of death row inmate Glenn Ford, then saw a 6-2 U.S. Supreme Court majority grant death row inmate Michael Wearry a new trial this year in a 1998 murder case.
But the new legislation has left the agency $1 million short and forced it to reduce its staff from 22 to 12, said Gary Clements, the group’s director.
“All I can tell you is we put in very high-quality work, and we see positive results,” Clements said. “We see the population of death row decreasing. Prosecutors apparently don’t seem to like that result.”
Whether the organization will have to turn away some cases or delay others remains uncertain, he said. “We still have attorneys. We still have support staff. We’re still open for business,” he said.
Also taking a $1 million hit was the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, which handles capital cases at trial in various parishes that don’t have qualified attorneys to handle them. Few such cases arise these days in Orleans Parish, but director Kerry Cuccia said the volume fluctuates.
His budget was reduced from $2.1 million to $1.1 million in the legislative restructuring, he said.
Cuccia said he heard proponents of the legislation argue that too much was being spent on capital defense, though he said, “I’m not sure that translated into a purposeful thing to reduce” funding for capital defense, rather than simply a bid to stanch the tide of red ink among local public defenders offices.
“The fiscal problems this Legislature and the governor had to face in this session were mammoth,” he noted.
A shortfall in funding to pay for the lawyers who would typically represent poor defendants …
Cuccia said the Legislature has taken some steps over the years to bolster funding for poor defendants, increasing the state’s contribution and in 2012 approving a $10 increase in the fee that convicts and traffic violators must pay to support indigent defense. But that increase hasn’t done much to solve the problem.
“I would not say the Legislature kicked the can down the road,” Cuccia said. “They tried to address it. The things they have done have not worked out to provide enough for what the demand is.”
Poor people booked with crimes in New Orleans no longer will be appointed public defenders f…
A state appeals court panel has overturned an Orleans Parish judge’s April ruling that seven…