East Baton Rouge has a new chief public defender for the first time in almost three decades, bringing new leadership to an office that serves one of the largest judicial districts in the state.
Lisa M. Parker was appointed by the Louisiana Public Defender Board in a 6-3 vote last month. Michael Mitchell, who served in the lead position for 27 years, stepped down earlier this year to join the board as a trial-level compliance officer.
Parker graduated from Southern University Law Center in 2006 and worked as the supervising attorney of the St. John the Baptist Public Defender's Office for six years before her promotion to deputy district defender in December, according to her LinkedIn profile.
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Parker wants to work with her counterparts across the state to convince the state legislature to create a more reliable funding source.
Public defenders largely rely on court-generated fines and fees, such as conviction costs and traffic ticket payments, to pay for their work. Parker and other public defenders say revenue is inconsistent, often putting their offices in budget crunches.
They say that problem was particularly obvious when the COVID pandemic closed courts.
“We have to get the legislators to understand that the way they currently have the public defense system set up for our major funding is not reliable," she said. "And all of the different districts, each public defender is dealing with their own budget crisis."
Parker hopes to bring the office to the community by encouraging people to take an active role in their civic duty and to understand the processes that make up the criminal justice system — particularly in schools.
“I think the problem with the entire criminal justice system is we look more toward incarcerating instead of correcting," Parker said in a recent community forum. "If we looked more toward mental health, job training, more collaboration and activities for youth, then we would have less incarceration.”
Parker said she has wanted to pursue a career in criminal defense since law school. She was unsure when the district defender of St. John the Baptist was planning to retire, so when she saw the opening in East Baton Rouge for the chief defender job, she decided to apply.
Her experience spans more than two decades and covers a variety of positions in the criminal justice system. Prior to law school, she was an adult probation and parole officer for eight years. After she graduated, she spent time as a law clerk for an Orleans Parish judge.
She then worked with the Orleans Public Defender’s Office for several years before she was recruited by the district attorney’s office, soon returning to public defense in the considerably smaller St. John the Baptist Parish.
“I’ve seen the system from every direction,” she said.
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Mitchell, who spent a total of 36 years at the East Baton Rouge Public Defender's Office, said in an interview with The Advocate that his successor should take her time and develop her own style of management.
"Work with all of the stakeholders in the justice system, as well as realize that she has inherited a good staff, a good team, get to know them and let them work with her," he said. "I am available to assist in any way that she needs."
“I'm going to try and do the best job that I can to represent the people. And I just want them to know that I'm going to be there," Parker said. "I need to be the voice in the courtroom for those that don't have a voice of their own."
For the sixth consecutive year, an annual report has declared Louisiana's public defense system is in crisis.
District defenders are appointed by the state public defender board after a local committee selects qualified candidates to be interviewed by the State Public Defender. The State Public Defender, Rémy Voisin Starns, spoke to the applicants before the board reviewed them in a closed-door executive session via Zoom call.
Lindsay Blouin, deputy district defender for East Baton Rouge Parish, was also nominated, but was rejected by a 4-5 vote. A public tally was not taken for the two other candidates, Stephen Sterling and Margaret Lagattuta, also public defenders in EBR.
Because the discussion happened behind closed doors, it's not clear who supported whom or why. After Parker received the majority, board member Donald North, a law professor at Southern University, shouted, "Yes!" and began clapping. He was gently chided by a fellow board member, and no further comments were made about the candidates.
Flozell Daniels Jr., the juvenile justice advocate on the board, moved to consider Blouin for the position and voted in her favor. But he also voted for Parker when she was considered in the next motion.
“I've spoken with a handful of folks who feel like [Lisa Parker] is highly ethical, very capable, has the capacity to grow into that larger office and has the right philosophy on vigorous public defense,” he said, adding that he still considers Blouin “one of the top public defenders in the state.”