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BATON ROUGE: A young tree stands at an angle in front of the 19th Judicial District Courthouse after being tipped over by high winds, seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Delta, Saturday, Ocr. 10, 2020.

Since July, about a third of the attorneys in the East Baton Rouge Office of the Public Defender have quit, documents show, leaving some concerned about whether the parish can provide adequate legal representation to its poorest defendants.

At least 25 employees, including 16 attorneys, have departed the office since a new leader, Lisa Parker, arrived last summer. Records show she has made several new hires, but many positions remain vacant.

That means even fewer attorneys for an office already struggling with caseloads well above the national average — even as gun violence spikes and the parishwide murder rate rises to unprecedented heights. 

Parker replaced the long-serving Mike Mitchell, who headed the office for 27 years. She said in a written statement that her overarching mission is "to effectively provide legal representation to the indigent citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish." 

Rémy Voisin Starns, the State Public Defender, voiced his support of her appointment despite the subsequent turnover.

"I'm very happy with the direction of the public defender's office in East Baton Rouge," he said. "I don't attribute any of those numbers to anything other than normal attrition when there's leadership change."

In recent internal emails, Parker used a metaphor to describe the transition, comparing herself to a bus driver steering the office in new directions.

"These are growing pains, which I warned would come," Parker wrote in an Aug. 10 office-wide email after several employees had quit. "Remember this mode of transportation is not for everyone, but we will get through this. We will be better and stronger in the long run."

But the deepening staffing shortage is dire, former employees say, because the office was understaffed even before Parker took office.

In 2017, Mitchell filed a motion for his office to withdraw from some cases and decline future appointments, citing impossible caseloads and saying his attorneys were "at significant risk of providing ineffective assistance of counsel." That was after he lost funding for six attorneys, an investigator and an administrator in 2015.

Mitchell referenced a study commissioned by the Louisiana Public Defender Board that found the full-time public defenders in his office had the capacity to handle only about 34% of their annual workloads if they limited themselves to 40-hour weeks.

Chronic funding shortages coupled with a stalled court system during the early months of the pandemic had made matters even worse than usual, according to a 2020 annual report describing issues in the office. 

"We have seen our case numbers balloon with little progress this year and it has had a serious impact on the well being of our clients and their attorneys," officials wrote in the report. "We continue to struggle to retain experienced attorneys who are offered positions with other agencies in town with lower caseloads and higher salaries."

The 2020 report cited "numerous unfilled full-time attorney and contract attorney positions" even before the recent departures.

According to records provided by Parker, her office has lost about a third of its attorneys in the past four months — 16 out of 47 — and gained 10 replacements, leaving them at least six short compared to when she arrived.

In interviews with The Advocate, half a dozen former employees said they worry the turmoil could impact the quality of representation for poor people accused of crimes in East Baton Rouge. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about the impact on their new jobs.

Parker provided staffing data in response to a public records request from The Advocate but declined multiple interview requests.

Instead, she offered an emailed statement, saying she manages the losses "as any law firm would."

"As people resign they are replaced with new hires," she wrote.

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Parker was appointed chief public defender in East Baton Rouge after serving for several years as a public defender in St. John the Baptist Parish. She was promoted to deputy district defender in December of last year — an administrative position she held for a handful of months before she was chosen to run the Baton Rouge office. 

The Louisiana Public Defender Board chose Parker after Lindsay Blouin, who was second in command under Mitchell and had worked in the East Baton Rouge office for over a decade, failed to garner enough votes for the appointment. Board members avoided public discussion of the candidates before voting.

Blouin left the office not long after Parker arrived. She now works at a Baton Rouge law firm and her position will not be filled, a spokesperson for Parker said.

Flozell Daniels, the juvenile justice advocate on the public defender board, voted for both Blouin and Parker. 

"I have not, myself, spoken with Ms. Parker," Daniels said. "But I did have an expectation that her appointment would signal stability and a path forward to continue the progress that office was making in its defense outcomes. Anything that suggests otherwise is a real concern to me as a board member. I'm concerned that I haven't heard about it from the public defender board office itself."

Several of the departing attorneys landed at other public defender offices across the state.

In addition to the attorneys, Daniels noted the departures of other support staff, which he said are equally concerning.

"Those investigators, those advocates — they are critical members of the legal defense team," he said. "What this tells me is that the clients are potentially getting a compromised defense."

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat who sits on the Louisiana Public Defender Board Optimal Funding Group, said the number of people leaving the office is alarming. While she believes the chronic underfunding of public defense is part of the problem, she chalked up many of the losses to the anticipated shakeups during a leadership transition.

"I do know that when there is a new person that comes in and is changing things, people are reluctant to change," Marcelle said. "I think that's what we're seeing. At the end of the day, the defendants are suffering."

In response to questions about why they left the office, a half-dozen former employees described a mix of what they called an uncompromising leadership style, policies they felt shifted the mission of the office and questions about job security.

Others said they think Parker has an "old school" view of public defense, limiting the role of public defenders to the courtroom, rather than working with social services providers and other community organizations — such as Gideon's Promise, a national nonprofit that sends young lawyers to poor and historically underserved districts with high caseloads and overworked attorneys.

In her emailed remarks, Parker declined to respond to the criticism. 

"As to the concerns of former employees, if they are no longer with the office their concerns are not a priority to me," she said. "If current employees have concerns, I have an open-door policy and that would be addressed in-house and not through the media."

In a later email, she added: "I'm positive that I will not be responding to concerns from former employees."

Though she has offered few public comments about her approach to the job, Parker spoke during a candidate forum in June prior to being appointed chief public defender. She offered a progressive vision of public defense.

"I think the problem with the entire criminal justice system is we look more toward incarcerating instead of correcting," she said. "If we looked more toward mental health, job training, more collaboration and activities for youth, then we would have less incarceration."

But Rev. Alexis Anderson, a local activist and organizer with Court Watch, said she fears Parker got a rough start that could threaten the effectiveness of her office. A robust public defense system is especially important in Louisiana, where state laws allow defendants to languish behind bars for months after being arrested while prosecutors decide whether to file formal charges, Anderson said.

The 19th Judicial District implemented an expedited arraignment process in 2019, which narrowed that window to just 72 hours in most cases. With this measure in place, most defendants no longer languished in the parish jail for weeks without meeting an attorney or being formally charged. But that program was scaled back after complaints from judges.

With a shortage of public defenders, Anderson said she worries the system is failing some of the most vulnerable people involved.

"Are clients getting the services they need?" she said. "If people are getting a lawyer on paper and nothing else, that's a real concern."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.

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