(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)
The Louisiana Senate reversed its initial reduction to local public defender offices when it approved the budget Friday afternoon. It moved back to the original public defender funding breakdown drawn up by the Louisiana House.
The Legislature is expect to approve the final version of the total state operating budget by Tuesday. The new budget cycle begins Wednesday.
The Louisiana Senate Finance Committee’s budget proposal, unveiled Wednesday, has reduced funding for cash-strapped local public defender offices who defend the poor across the state.
The committee kept the total funding for public defender services, around $48 million, at the same level it was when the state budget left the Louisiana House earlier this month. But the committee shifted around the amount of money that would go to the central state public defender board as opposed to the 42 local district offices.
The House had allocated 70 percent of the $48 million to local public defender offices and 30 percent to the state board for the annual budget cycle that starts July 1. The Senate committee budget proposal reduced the local district office portion to 65 percent and boosted the state board’s funding to 35 percent.
It also required the local districts to pay for some administrative costs they don’t typically cover, said Tiffany Simpson, legislative director for the Louisiana Public Defender Board, in an interview Thursday.
District public defenders and the state board deal with different types of cases. Local public defenders handle representation for people facing criminal charges, including murder and other serious crimes, in their local communities. The state public defender board pays for a smaller group of more complicated cases across the state including appeals, death penalty defense and claims of innocence for people serving life sentences.
It is the local public defender offices — not the state board — that are facing a funding crisis as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Local public defenders offices are primarily funded through what’s called a conviction user fee — a fine that a person convicted of a crime pays to the court. About three-quarters of that user fee revenue comes from people paying traffic tickets, Simpson said.
When the courts closed and police started writing fewer traffic tickets in response to the pandemic, the conviction user fee funding dried up. Simpson said in a Senate committee meeting Thursday that 200 attorneys doing public defender work across the state either saw their hours reduced or were furloughed. Some of that funding is likely to be lost permanently, since police officers still aren’t inclined to write as many tickets for the next several months, she said.
The Louisiana House increased the public defender funding overall by $7.3 million specifically so that the local district offices could keep from going into financial freefall. The Senate’s reallocation of those funds cuts into the relief the House provided.
“We were advocating for funding for the districts because they are the ones that have been affected by COVID,” Simpson said.
On Thursday, Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, and Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, expressed concern that the districts may not be getting the funding they needed. Barrow said the full Senate would need to “take another look” at how public defender funding was allocated when it voted on the budget Friday.
The $7.3 million increase that the House had given the public defenders wasn’t nearly as much as they had requested. They had initially asked for a $28 million increase, according to the Associated Press. Several public defenders told House members in committee that without a financial boost, the court system might be forced to release people who had committed violent crimes back onto the street. The courts would have no choice because there would be no lawyer available to represent them.
Even before COVID-19 struck Louisiana, some local public defender offices had been in a funding crisis on-and-off for several years. The conviction user fees don’t generate enough money to meet their basic needs, they have told the Louisiana Legislature for years. A few offices have come close to closing altogether because of a lack of funding. More than half of the offices decline to take certain cases because they cannot afford to assign it to a lawyer.
In response, the Senate is considering a study, sponsored by Barrow, to review how public defenders are funded in other Southern states and to find ways to stabilize their finances in Louisiana. The panel, called the Louisiana Public Defender Board Optimal Funding Group, is awaiting a final vote from the Senate. If approved, it would have to come up with recommendations for improving district public defender finances for lawmakers by April 1.
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