The head of the office that provides criminal defense lawyers for poor people in three Acadiana parishes said Tuesday inadequate funding is forcing his office to put defendants on a waiting list for legal counsel.
G. Paul Marx, who runs the Public Defenders’ Office for the 15th Judicial District in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, said his office will not be able to immediately take cases of indigent defendants newly accused of drug crimes or misdemeanors.
Marx said about 200 defendants arrested in the past two weeks are affected. The new policy applies only to defendants who are not in jail.
“By the time July 1 rolls up on us, it’ll probably be 600 or more needing (legal) counsel,” he said.
July 1 is the start of the budget year for Louisiana, which provides a good portion of the 15th District’s public defender budget of $3.9 million per year. Although the funding from the state stayed the same in the 2015-16 state budget year, the 2014-15 budget cut almost half a million dollars from the office, according to a statement issued by Marx’s office.
Public defender offices in Louisiana could be hard-pressed to receive more funding this year from the Legislature, which is staring at a current shortfall of $700 million and a 2016-17 projected deficit of $1.8 billion, according to estimates.
Other funding for the office comes from local sources, including revenue from speeding tickets that has remained flat in the past few years.
Marx said his office is short $250,000 to $300,000 of being able to run the office until June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year. The office also has had to cut nine criminal defense attorney positions.
As of Tuesday, the office employed 25 public defenders. Another 30 local attorneys work under contract for the office. According to a prepared statement released Tuesday afternoon, some public defenders have seen their incomes cut up to $2,000 a month.
Public defenders and district attorney offices receive much of their funding at the local level from court fines and fees from traffic tickets. But the income from speeding tickets has been an uneven source of revenue.
Marx said money from tickets issued in the three parishes has not sufficiently grown to handle his 15th District office’s growing expenses.
Fifteenth District Attorney Keith Stutes said Tuesday he believes a close examination is needed on how public defender offices in Louisiana spend the money they get, and how the statewide Public Defender Board distributes funds.
“There’s never been a determination” on how the money is doled out and used, Stutes said.
Stutes said his prosecutors would continue to push cases through the adjudication process. He said the argument used by Marx and other public defender offices “has been a one-sided presentation.”
James Dixon, head of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, did not immediately return a call Tuesday. Dixon told The Advocate last year that Louisiana’s funding method faces a fork in the road, and that a “failure to fix it may prove to be much more expensive.”
Marx said the decision to leave some defendants unrepresented for a period of time was based on a “Restriction of Services Protocol” mandated by the state Public Defender Board.
The state board’s protocol was put in place to prevent lawyers from spending too little time on cases because of an excessive workload.
Marx said he got the state board’s approval to put poor defendants on a waiting list. He said that was the only possible avenue available to his office because of the funding shortage.