For the sixth consecutive year, an annual report has declared Louisiana's public defense system is in crisis.

The report, which was released Friday, reviews each judicial district in the state, details the year's strategic plan and recommends changes to the law. In an introduction, the new State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns underscored the perpetual concerns over the system's funding that plagued his predecessor, James T. Dixon.

Outside of death penalty cases, there are no defendants sitting on a waitlist for a public defender. But Starns said the "age-old haunts" of public defense still loom large in 2020: unreliable, unstable and insufficient funding that threatens the constitutional right of poor people to receive legal help when accused of a crime. 

Public defenders' offices are funded largely through the fines and fees courts charge. That means their budgets are constantly in flux, which defense lawyers and public defenders throughout the state say is inherently problematic.

"Candidly, the current system fails its responsibility to deliver quality services," said Lake Charles attorney Walter Sanchez. "As a result of that, individual defendants who are represented by public defenders across the state are at risk of ineffective assistance of counsel."

Orleans Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton added that the public defense system has not fundamentally changed in the last 15 years, eroding community trust in criminal justice proceedings. 

"What our criminal legal system is plagued by in Louisiana is a lack of equity," Bunton said. "That produces a shortage of lawyers, a shortage of resources to represent poor people going through the system and puts people at risk for wrongful conviction." 

Starns acknowledged that a one-time influx of $3.9 million from the state legislature brought some short-term stability. But he said eight of state's 42 district defender offices remain in "restriction of services," a designation that means they are limited in their ability to represent clients.

To demonstrate the state's uncertain funding model, Starns highlighted East Baton Rouge Parish, which faced a compounding crisis in the summer of 2016 with the death of Alton Sterling, the shooting of law enforcement officers weeks later and, finally, the catastrophic flooding in August that left much of the parish devastated.

As officials responded to each disaster, they shifted public safety priorities, resulting in a drastic decline in issued traffic tickets. The East Baton Rouge public defender's office funding relies heavily on traffic fines and consequently saw its local revenue plunge dramatically. 

In an attempt to save the office from fiscal collapse, the Louisiana Public Defender Board was forced to pool together money that was intended for other districts and direct it toward East Baton Rouge.

The funds kept the beleaguered office from drowning, but left other districts gasping for air, Starns explained.

"To be sure, the funding problems at the Louisiana Public Defender Board are not the result of a single event but rather a recurring consequence of the unique way Louisiana funds public defense," Starns wrote.

In the report, the Louisiana Public Defender Board offered two recommendations to the legislature: create a stable, reliable, sufficient funding source for public defense and reclassify misdemeanors.

This would be the sixth time the board has suggested these same recommendations. 

But other anxieties persist beyond each district's daily struggles. The fate of those defendants accused of a capital crime, many of whom continue to wait for counsel, is a different matter entirely. They require vastly more resources for their legal defense.

"The capital waitlist casts a dark cloud over, and threatens the solvency of, the entire Louisiana statewide public defense system," Starns wrote. "An outsized portion of the public defense budget is consumed by these relatively few cases." 

Starns noted 13 defendants accused of a capital crime do not have legal representation; some, he said, have been waiting for counsel for more than 200 days.

Nicholas J. Trenticosta, a New Orleans lawyer who has spent much of his career representing persons facing the death penalty, finds this reality indefensible. 

"No one should be sitting in the can without counsel and be told, 'We want to kill you,'" Trenticosta said. "It’s always been funny to me when I hear people say, 'Well, these guys don’t deserve a Cadillac defense.' Why not? They’re trying to take your liberty away. What do they deserve, then?"

This "unsustainable" situation, Starns said, must be addressed by the legislature. 

It is a tall order in a state that features widespread poverty and a high rate of imprisonment, although Starns noted Louisiana has been trending away from incarceration — a pattern that could alleviate the burden of insufficient funding for public defense. 

Bunton, who characterizes himself as a reformer, said he believes that change will eventually come to the system, though it will take time.

“As the saying goes, 'The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,'" Bunton said. "I see the change coming, but it’s incremental."

However, communities losing fathers, mothers and children to the criminal justice system cannot wait, he said. Bunton emphasized how those with the ability to affect change must remember how urgent this issue is for people who live each day under the shadow of a justice system that cannot afford justice. 

“Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I think there is," Bunton said. "It’s going to be up to leaders in our community and in our criminal court system to determine how long that tunnel runs. In Louisiana, justice finds its way into the light of day a little slower than elsewhere.”

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com