News Release ~ 03/02/2017

The Deepening Public Defense Crisis in Louisiana; New Report from Nation's Criminal Defense Bar

New Orleans, LA (Mar. 2, 2017) -- The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), with support from the Foundation for Criminal Justice (FCJ), today releases State of Crisis: Chronic Neglect and Underfunding for Louisiana's Public Defense System, by Andrea M. Marsh, Lecturer at the University of Texas School of Law. This report was commissioned by NACDL and its Public Defense Committee "to assess the root causes of perhaps the most prolonged and severe public defense crisis in the nation." (Foreword, at 4.) Those causes include inadequate and unstable funding mechanisms that triggered well-publicized waitlists for public defense services, as well as less-publicized but chronic failures to safeguard the independence of the defense function and to sustain a public defense system capable of delivering legal services that meet constitutional and professional standards.

As explained in the report's Introduction, beginning in July 2016, NACDL interviewed over 20 individuals about Louisiana's public defense system, including former members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board (LPDB), LPDB staff members, district defenders, line defenders, state-funded capital defense lawyers, private criminal defense lawyers, bar leaders, and civil rights advocates. NACDL also reviewed government public defense standards, records, and reports; court opinions and litigation documents concerning public defense; and historical reports on Louisiana's public defense system. The goal of the report is to provide context for Louisiana's public defense crisis, and from that foundation to offer specific recommendations for reform. This report offers a historical overview of Louisiana's public defense system, the current crisis and 2016 legislative session, as well as findings and recommendations for moving forward.

"Louisiana's public defense system has been in a state of crisis since 2015. Some people accused of crimes have spent months in jail without having lawyers appointed to represent them, while others have been nominally represented by lawyers who are so overburdened with crushing caseloads that they are unable to meet with their clients or fulfill other fundamental professional obligations," Andrea Marsh, who authored the report for NACDL, said. "The crisis in Louisiana is the entirely foreseeable consequence of the state's long-standing failure to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and stable source of funding for public defense. This is not Louisiana's first public defense crisis, and it certainly will not be its last unless the state fully funds the cost of providing standards-based representation to its indigent defendants and replaces the system's current reliance on local revenue from court fees with a more stable funding source. Louisiana's public defenders need to be able to focus on providing representation that meets professional standards, but now many are struggling just to keep their heads above water."

NACDL President Barry J. Pollack said: "The United States Constitution guarantees that if you are accused of a crime and cannot afford a lawyer, you will be provided an attorney with adequate training and resources to represent you. Sadly, in many parts of the country, that guarantee is often an empty promise. In many jurisdictions, overburdened public defenders have caseloads that do not allow them to provide effective representation to all of their clients and public defenders frequently lack resources to hire the necessary investigators and experts. Nowhere is this more true than in Louisiana. This new report looks at the reasons Louisiana's public defense system finds itself in an unprecedented crisis and offers recommendations to alleviate this intolerable situation. NACDL looks forward to participating in a national effort to ensure that the citizens of Louisiana receive the representation the Constitution guarantees."

The report's findings concern funding, independence, and the quality of representation, and include the following:

  • The total amount of funding available for public defense in Louisiana is inadequate;
  • The local revenue stream, which provides the majority of district funding, provides an unstable and inequitable foundation for Louisiana's public defense system;
  • There is gross disparity in the resources available to the defense function and to the prosecution in Louisiana;
  • During restriction of services (drastic cost-cutting measures to avoid insolvency, including hiring freezes, furloughs, and case refusal), some judges in Louisiana have infringed on the independence of the defense function;
  • Even in the face of persistent underfunding, the Louisiana public defense system has improved overall under the Public Defender Act and LPDB;
  • There are many places in Louisiana where the quality of representation provided to accused individuals has not improved significantly since 2007 and likely does not meet constitutional standards; and
  • As implemented, restriction of services was not an effective safeguard against further deterioration of the quality of representation provided to indigent defendants in Louisiana.

Based on NACDL's research and findings, the report offers six recommendations:

  1. The Louisiana Legislature should fully fund the provision of public defense services in Louisiana from general revenue.
  2. The Louisiana Legislature should repeal the public defender fee on convictions and public defender application fee, and replace local revenue for public defense with state general revenue. If local revenue is a necessary transitional measure before sufficient state revenue is available to fully fund public defense, changes to local revenue streams that will make them more stable and equitable should be adopted.
  3. Louisiana should establish parity between the defense function and the prosecution.
  4. Louisiana judges should respect the independent professional judgment of lawyers who provide public defense services, including their determinations that a conflict prevents them from accepting or maintaining representation of a case.
  5. Louisiana judges should release from detention accused individuals for whom the state cannot provide counsel due to its underfunding of the public defense system.
  6. LPDB and the defender community should re-focus on improving the quality of representation rather than merely surviving the next crisis.

A PDF of the report is available for download at www.nacdl.org/louisianapublicdefense. All NACDL reports are available at www.nacdl.org/reports.

To learn more about NACDL's extensive work in the area of public defense, please visit www.nacdl.org/publicdefense.

Contact

Ivan J. Dominguez, NACDL Director of Public Affairs & Communications, (202) 465-7662 or idominguez@nacdl.org for more information.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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