Louisiana's public defenders face steep financial challenges as the coronavirus rages on, forcing leaders to declare an emergency shortfall in funding this week.
The outbreak has shuttered courthouses across the state, halting the flow of user fines and fees that account for about half of the Louisiana Public Defender Board's budget. In response, leaders are considering which services must be cut to save the system from collapse.
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"There are no sacred cows. There cannot be," State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns said in an April 28 memo proposing drastic cuts. "We need to reform now in a manner that accurately reflects the reality of our circumstances."
Starns recently submitted recommendations to keep the public defense system afloat through the next fiscal year and shore up financial support for the state's 42 districts. His plan includes slashing contracts with nonprofit programs providing specialized defense and forming regional offices to address these needs instead — such as for death penalty cases, juvenile defense and appellate work.
But others on the board believe that the entire funding model for public defense should be revamped. They say public defenders need a new, more stable funding source, or an already-strained system is likely to encounter even more struggles in the future.
This argument is not new: The inconsistent and diminishing revenue stream of fines and fees has long been decried as an unstable and insufficient means to sustain the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crimes.
"We’re a public agency required to provide a service to keep the system fair," said Flozell Daniels Jr., the juvenile justice advocate on the board. "When we don’t have resources to do that, we’re operating outside of the law."
Now, the pandemic has ramped up concerns that this funding model will further deteriorate, compromising robust public defense across the state.
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In a tense meeting on Friday, board member Donald North argued that public defense leaders must stop "fighting over chicken feed" and seek lasting solutions to their budgetary woes that depart from the "user fees" approach.
"You cannot run a public defense system in a state based on the backs of poor people," he said.
However, Starns cautioned that transforming the funding mechanism for public defense requires a "multiple-step" solution — whether that be extra money or new legislation. Such an approach may not be feasible during this legislative session, particularly with lawmakers already buckling under the weight of a projected economic downturn for the state following the coronavirus fallout.
"Getting to where we need to be might be a hard ask," Starns said.
To curb anticipated shortfalls, the board is seeking an additional $3.5 million from the state for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. Tiffany Simpson, director of legislative affairs for the board, admits this is a "conservative estimate" in a time of uncertainty for all state agencies.
"We decided to go with a justifiable request," she said. "We wanted something we could put data behind."
Louisiana’s tax and fee collections dropped $494 million – 42.7% – in April when compared to the same month last year.
Daniels said in a separate interview that his colleagues must explore every option to "provide for defense that is constitutionally mandated."
"Now is the time for us to be bold in going to the state legislature and the governor asking for the resources we need," he said.
In the meantime, nonprofit leaders staring down possible cuts say their loss of funding could be devastating for the most vulnerable people seeking help in the criminal justice system.
Heads of the Capital Appeals Project and Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, both of which represent individuals facing a sentence of juvenile life without parole, said in letters to the board that the damage to their clients would be significant if their contracts were severed.
Without a clear path forward, the board will continue to discuss possible cuts and outcomes, following their lawmakers closely in the coming weeks.
While Starns declared in his report that the system faces an unprecedented "existential crisis," he added that if the legislature is going to consider providing them with a more reliable and sufficient source of funding in the future, the board must prove they have been good stewards of the current system in place.
"I am not an alarmist and there is no need to panic," he said. "However, there is an urgent need to plan and act now."
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