Public defense funding in Louisiana must be spared the state budget ax, the president of the American Bar Association stressed this week in a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards and other elected state officials.

Paulette Brown’s four-page letter to the governor, leaders of the Louisiana Senate and House of Representatives, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson comes as the state-funded Louisiana Public Defender Board has been threatened with a more than 61 percent reduction of its $33 million budget.

“Louisiana’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall undoubtedly requires difficult decisions, including cuts to critical services,” Brown said in her Wednesday letter. “But public defense is one service that cannot be cut.”

Edwards, while noting that the recent special legislative session failed to fully address the state’s budget problems, pledged Thursday to work with the ABA to make sure the criminal justice system is properly funded.

“I recognize the immense challenges that public defenders across Louisiana are facing at this time. I have great respect for the men and women who provide legal representation for those who need it but can least afford it,” he said. “The work they do is important and necessary.

“We must work to keep the criminal justice system functioning while allowing meaningful and substantive reform to take place to address the problems outlined by ABA,” Edwards added.

Brown said Louisiana public defenders, many of whom carry excessive caseloads, have an ethical, constitutional and statutory duty to maintain reasonable workloads.

“Cutting nearly 62 percent of the public defense budget would exacerbate the current workload problem, threatening mass constitutional and ethical violations, as well as likely increasing wrongful conviction and mass incarceration,” she warned.

“It also would require additional service restrictions on a scale unprecedented in the history of American public defense,” she added.

Brown’s letter came two days after a judge halted the prosecution in Baton Rouge state court of alleged members and associates of the violent Gardere-area Big Money Block Boyz gang after court-appointed lawyers on the case complained there is no state money to pay their bills.

In Lafayette, a judge was told the public defense funding problem could delay Landon Broussard’s death penalty trial, set to start this summer. Broussard is accused of killing Julian Madera, the 3-year-son of his girlfriend, Laura Smith. In that case, the Lafayette Indigent Defenders Office canceled the contract with Broussard’s lead attorney and accepted the resignation of another attorney in the case.

That development came on the heels of an announcement March 21 from Mike Mitchell, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender, that his office will cease taking some new cases in state and juvenile court as of July 1 without additional funding for the local office. Mitchell had announced a hiring freeze last spring.

The indigent defense funding woes also have caught the attention of Johnson, the chief justice of Louisiana’s highest court. In her annual state of the judiciary address to the Legislature, she told state lawmakers March 15 that roughly 85 percent of all criminal defendants are represented by public defenders.

“It is our constitutional obligation to provide adequate representation. We cannot try felony cases — cases where folks are subject to imprisonment at hard labor — without them having an attorney,” she said. “While not usually considered as a cost savings method, if we fail to provide adequate counsel at the outset, we will not be able to avoid the exorbitant costs associated with reversal and retrial of case.”

Johnson said 33 of Louisiana’s 42 judicial district public defender offices are now operating under a restriction of services. It is foreseen that half of the state’s public defender offices will be insolvent within months, she stated.

The ABA’s Brown called it a “critical moment for public defense” in this country.

“Louisiana has an opportunity to serve as a model for governments balancing budget shortfalls and lawyers’ constitutional and ethical duties,” she said.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association has been contending for several years that the state Public Defender Board’s fiscal management of limited state funds needs to be more fully scrutinized.

The ABA, along with a Louisiana accounting firm, is now conducting a public defender workload study in the state.

Steve Hanlon, the ABA project leader on the study, said Thursday he anticipates the release of a final report in September. One part of the two-part study involves time-keeping in several public defender offices, including those in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, he said.

In the second part, public defenders and private attorneys have taken electronic surveys dealing with various case types and how much time is needed to perform the tasks associated with those cases.