The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council approved a nearly half million dollar budget supplement Wednesday for the District Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender after both departments cited chronic financial shortfalls.
The two offices will split the $495,000 appropriation and use the funds to help offset their respective budget deficits. Officials heading both departments welcomed the infusion of funds, but said their current levels of funding still remain insufficient for the work required.
“This will barely keep us alive right now,” said District Attorney Hillar Moore III, adding that it will allow his office to tread water while its budget remains at a standstill.
The District Attorney’s Office is expected to hire two additional assistant district attorneys with the $250,000 it’s slated to receive. Moore said his office is currently down at least seven to nine attorneys and hasn’t had this few staffers since the 1980s.
“We know that money is tight all over,” Moore said. “We operate in the same system as the public defender’s office and it's inadequate for the work that we each have to do.”
The Office of the Public Defender has similarly had to cut staff and reduce salaries as funding has dried up. Earlier this year, it eliminated a contract with its only bilingual attorney as well as with attorneys in both Baker and Zachary City Courts.
Public defender offices statewide have blamed funding shortfalls on drops in fines and fees on traffic citations. Louisiana is unique across the country in financing much of its public defense through court costs paid by the guilty.
The $245,000 designated for the public defender’s office is “simply a fill in the gap amount” meant to shore up deficits for the remainder of the year, said Mike Mitchell, the parish's chief public defender.
Citing chronic underfunding and excessive workloads, East Baton Rouge Parish's chief public defender sought permission Thursday to withdraw fr…
This is the first time since 2003 the public defender’s office has asked for funding from the city-parish, and going forward, Mitchell said, additional support will be “key to the survival of the office.” Without meaningful support, the office may be forced to refuse cases.
Mitchell sought permission from District Judge Don Johnson in June to withdraw from some cases and decline future appointments, even if it results in charges being dismissed against indigent defendants. Johnson is expected to make a decision on Mitchell’s plea Thursday.