Multiple public defender districts in Louisiana, including East Baton Rouge and Orleans, are at risk of becoming insolvent in a year or two if the state doesn't provide more funding, the head of the state board told legislators on Wednesday.
"We're looking at a very dire scenario over the next two years," State Public Defender Jay Dixon said. "Next year, you're going to see a number of districts probably fail."
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Two years after the Legislature sought to shore up additional funding for indigent defense districts in Louisiana by redirecting how state dollars are spent, Dixon said problems persist that can only be solved with an infusion of more money from the state. The comments were made during a subcommittee's review of statutory dedications in the state budget.
The state is currently facing a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality and funding structure of its public defenders system.
The lawsuit – led by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Jones Walker law firm – was filed in February 2017 in partnership with the Davis, Polk & Wardwell firm and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. A judge in August certified the class action suit.
Local funding for public defenders is linked primarily to money generated through traffic tickets.
Dixon told the Joint Budget subcommittee that ticketing has "plummeted statewide" in recent years, cutting off the key source of funding.
"Their ticket writing has just evaporated," he said of East Baton Rouge collections, in particular.
Monroe is at its lowest local funding level since the board started tracking, he added.
A Baton Rouge judge has granted class-action status to a lawsuit that aims to upend Louisiana’s creaking public defense system.
"They have no control over any of it, and yet it's their lifeblood," he said.
The state allocates about $34 million to indigent defense, most of which trickles down to districts, but it also goes to pay non-profits that handle defense in capital cases.
"We are in a very, very precarious position," Dixon told lawmakers. "I can tell you there's no more money to shift."
Any failure to fund indigent defense could create further legal issues for the state, Dixon warned. He didn't mention the class action case already ongoing.
Louisiana's system for providing criminal defense to indigent people accused of crimes has long come under fire for its seeming instability due to its reliance on parish-by-parish collections of fines and traffic citations.
"A lot of it is geographic," Dixon said. "That's one of the blind spots in our funding."
The class-action lawsuit is set to go to trial in Baton Rouge in January.
“For decades, the State has allowed the public defense system to be underfunded and unmonitored,” SPLC deputy legal director Lisa Graybill, said in a statement on the suit. “This statewide problem demands a statewide solution.”
According to SPLC's research, Louisiana, which has about a quarter of a million indigent defense cases a year, is the only state that funds its public defenders under the local-state partnership that it has.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said the current structure, under which the state portion of the fund comes through a statutory dedication, may prevent full debate of the need for more resources.
"We're not judging the need for the funding," she said. "We all recognize that we need to provide for public defense."
In recent years, the debate over public defender funding has repeatedly come to a head as local public defenders increased workloads and eventually stopped taking defendants in some cases because of a lack of funding.
At the same time, the state was cycling through repeated budget crises — often cited as an excuse for why no additional dollars would be allocated.
The Legislature in 2016 approved a measure that directed 65 percent of the existing dedicated funding on the state level be distributed local districts, after locals complained about how state dollars were being spent and the sagging local funds.
"We cannot keep up with the plummeting local funding," Dixon said.