The past year of pandemic precautions and cutbacks has radically altered the way the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office works to represent clients.
It is not the first time public defense has weathered a crisis. When much of the parish flooded in 2016, the office suffered: financially with fewer traffic tickets that provide much of the local public defense revenue, and personally with staffers losing their homes.
However, the practice of defending clients, while hampered, went back to normal in about a month, according to Lindsay Blouin, deputy district defender. During the pandemic, setbacks have lingered and “normal” has a different meaning.
“The pandemic has totally impacted how we represent people,” Blouin said. “It’s changed how we’ve practiced as public defenders. Financially, things are bad — but they’ve been bad.”
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Lacie Dauzat, supervisor over the pretrial services unit, has seen firsthand how everything changed in mid-March of last year when the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison halted visitation for both families and attorneys.
"It’s been extremely frustrating for the attorneys within our office to not have those important face-to-face conversations with our clients," she said.
Normally, a public defender who might need to speak to a client and would drive to the jail immediately. Now, these meetings must be scheduled, a client needs to be brought to the courthouse, a room needs to be made available to meet — the list goes on.
"It has caused things to slow down dramatically," Blouin said. "We already have too many clients and not enough attorneys...and that was a problem before the pandemic."
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When judges held their dockets on Zoom, Douzat found herself working with a small laptop that had to be wheeled around the entire prison while they tried to communicate with attorneys working from home or physically in court.
For defenders representing clients accused of violent crimes, the pandemic has presented unique obstacles. Those cases require a lot of manpower to interview witnesses and collect video surveillance.
"With your more serious charges, those are the ones that take the most time," Dauzat said. "Investigators are used to going from door to door. A lot of gathering that evidence is time sensitive, and when things are getting pushed back and we’re not able to review that discovery thoroughly with the client, that creates issues."
However, Dauzat said that "as horrid as the pandemic is, it kind of shined a light on the things" the office had missed, such as working with the jail to set up a phone system so inmates can conduct private calls with their attorneys. The office also created a team of client advocates whose job is to keep families informed about their incarcerated loved ones.
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When it comes to finances, the office has long been cash-strapped, especially after 2016. A fiscally conservative approach in the aftermath of several lean years, along with additional emergency funding, helped the office avoid layoffs.
But Blouin said the office's larger funding issue is that "people can't pay what they don't have" for court fines and fees that public defense relies on to stay solvent. They don't want clients to have to choose between paying their court fines or public defender fees instead of their rent during the uptick in unemployment.
“In 2016, we were the parish underwater, but now everyone is underwater," Blouin said. “We all have the same problems. It makes us worried."