The crisis in public defense in Louisiana has been well-documented by the news media over the past several years. Stories of overloaded public defenders, unrepresented individuals languishing in jail, and mass pleas have shocked the nation’s conscience, but the system’s shortcomings have long evaded reform. However, much coverage of the public defense crisis in Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation, has focused its attention on the consequences of the crisis rather than its causes.
Through interviews and review of publicly available documents, NACDL compiled a history of Louisiana’s public defense system from 1963 to the present, uncovering some of the structural issues that have led to a system that exists in a constant state of emergency. While acknowledging that representation in Louisiana has improved overall since 2007, the report found several deficiencies including funding disparities, lack of independence, and inadequate quality of representation.
Based on these findings, the report presents six recommendations for reform in Louisiana:
- The Louisiana Legislature should fully fund the provision of public defense services in Louisiana from general revenue.
- 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.
- Louisiana should establish parity between the defense function and the prosecution.
- 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.
- Louisiana judges should release from detention accused individuals for whom the state cannot provide counsel due to its underfunding of the public defense system.
- LPDB and the defender community should re-focus on improving the quality of representation rather than merely surviving the next crisis.
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