Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator
The chronically-underfunded Louisiana public defenders will need at least $3.9 million more in funding than the $43 million Gov. John Bel Edwards has recommended giving them in the state’s next budget cycle, state public defender Remy Starns said Tuesday.
The problem, once again, is connected to the way Louisiana chooses to pay for its public defenders.
The state relies, in part, on a $45 fee attached to criminal convictions to fund public defense. Convictions — and therefore collection of the $45 conviction fee — have dropped 22 percent from where those collections were before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Starns said. The drop in convictions mean fewer conviction fees for public defenders.
Starns estimated that if convictions don’t pick up to at least pre-pandemic levels, the public defenders could end up as much as $5 million short of what they need to function. The money is needed to support 39 public defender offices working in Louisiana’s 42 state courts.
Public defenders are attorneys who represent people who are facing criminal charges and are poor or otherwise not able to pay for a lawyer. The state is constitutionally required to offer this legal representation.
Approximately three quarters of the public defenders’ conviction fees actually come from traffic tickets, Starns said. A relatively small portion of the revenue from the fee comes from criminal convictions that are handed down in court — in part because people who are convicted of crimes and sent to prison often can’t afford to pay their fees. So those fees aren’t collected.
In 2020, when traffic stops almost ground to a halt during the COVID-19 lockdown, public defenders also faced a budget crisis. The Louisiana Legislature ended up diverting an additional $7 million to public defenders to help them get through the end of the budget cycle in June.
“We could not have made it through the fiscal year without it,” Starns said of that extra money.
But relying on traffic tickets to fund a substantial portion of the public defenders’ budget was problematic long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The state public defender board has consistently complained over the years that the traffic ticket funding is unstable.
In recent years, people who are arrested have been steered more toward diversion programs instead of prison. That has caused the number of convictions and traffic tickets — and the fees associated with them — to drop, leaving public defenders with less money.
Some of the diversion programs, for traffic tickets in particular, benefit district attorneys. Drivers who are facing a traffic ticket can pay the local district attorney’s office a fee and sometimes take an online class or read a pamphlet on how to improve their driving habits to avoid the ticket, according to reporting from The Lens. This means that the conviction fee that would have been attached to that traffic ticket never gets paid to the public defenders.
In other cases, convictions — and therefore conviction fees — are avoided because the person facing prison time opts to go into counseling or a drug rehabilitation program instead. Public defenders generally support these options for their clients, but the options still result in a drop in their revenue.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, is leading a working group to try and find a more stable source for funding public defense in Louisiana. Outside of the reliability issues, she said there are ethical questions about whether public defense funding should be tied so closely to criminal convictions.
“We need a better mechanism for how you guys are funded,” she said.
The public defenders have also faced issues with office space. A few local public defenders have been evicted from public buildings or have been working out of private law offices, which Starns finds inappropriate. The Legislature attempted to address this issue by giving the public defenders $8.3 million to purchase buildings for permanent public defender offices in the last budget cycle.
Starns said Tuesday that his office recently purchased a building in Calcasieu Parish, where the public defenders’ former building was completely destroyed by Hurricane Laura.
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