The public defenders in a dozen judicial districts covering 19 parishes could be insolvent by the end of the fiscal year, the Legislative Fiscal Office stated in a report released Tuesday.
“There are things we could do right now that will put this off,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon. Fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30. State government is now operating in Fiscal Year 2015.
“But there’s nothing we can do for fiscal 2016,” he said. Next year the number of offices operating at a deficit doubles as the one-time resources and budget cuts that public defenders have relied thus far, run out.
Criminal defendants are required to have lawyers, and when they can’t afford one, public defenders get the call. Without a lawyer, criminal cases can’t proceed. The system stalls.
The lack of funding could force offices to go on “restricted services,” and stop taking criminal cases. Judges then could, and likely would, start assigning cases to private lawyers who would not get paid, said George Steimel, with the Louisiana Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. That means real estate or oil & gas attorneys could find themselves tied up in court defending an accused criminal.
“We’ve known this for some time now,” Steimel said. But every effort to increase state funding has been opposed by prosecutors and law enforcement, he said.
Due to stagnant state assistance, 26 public defender districts operated last fiscal year at a deficit and covered their expenses using one-time monies, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office report.
About 60 percent of a public defenders’ funds come from the state and the rest comes from fees levied by individual jurisdictions, said Dixon, who is charge of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
The local fees have not produced the amount of revenues anticipated and simply aren’t keeping pace with expenditures, he said.
The total state appropriation, which is distributed to local offices using a formula built on caseloads and other variables, has remained the same over the years, at about $33 million. And the state money is the most stable and predictable funding source.
The real fear, Dixon says, is that the jurisdictions that are poised to fail are some of the most populous and busiest in the state, including Jefferson Parish, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette. The state just may not have the money at hand to cover the deficits in jurisdictions with so many criminal cases, a high percentage of which rely on public defenders.
“Bailing out Caldwell Parish is one thing,” Dixon said. “But Jefferson Parish, St. Tammany Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, there you’re talking about a lot more money, money the state doesn’t have. I afraid that it’ll start a cascade.”