Eleven of Louisiana’s 41 public defender offices did not bring in enough money to cover their costs during the 2020-2021 state budget cycle, providing more evidence the state’s public defender system is in a financial crisis.
The 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish had the largest cost overruns, spending $243,000 more than its $5.4 million budget, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor released Thursday.
East Baton Rouge Parish has the largest public defender office next to Orleans Parish, which spent $8 million but finished the year with a $1.5 million surplus. New Orleans contributes a substantial amount of local government funding to public defense, unlike many other jurisdictions in Louisiana.
Other parishes with public defenders that could not make payroll include Allen, Beauregard, Catahoula, Concordia, DeSoto, Franklin, East Feliciana, Lafourche, LaSalle, Lincoln, Richland, Sabine, St. John the Baptist, Union, West Carroll and West Feliciana.
Public defenders provide legal representation to people who are poor or otherwise can’t afford an attorney when facing criminal charges. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide the service.
The auditor said the state public defender board should require action plans from the local offices running deficits to ensure they don’t continue to spend more money than they have. State public defender Remy Starns pushed back on that suggestion, saying it’s impossible for some offices to avoid deficit spending under the current funding model.
In Louisiana, local public defender revenue comes mostly from fees assessed when a defendant is convicted of a crime or pleads guilty. Traffic tickets make up the bulk of this revenue, but it has been declining for several years.
District attorneys in several jurisdictions have set up diversion programs for traffic violations, which allow people to bypass conviction and not pay the public defense fee. Instead, they pay prosecutors to take part in an alternative program.
“Traffic filings have decreased by more than 62% from 2009 to 2021,” Starns wrote in response to the report. “This persistent decrease in traffic filings has had a negative impact on local funding.”
The impact is uneven. Traffic tickets, specifically, are more prevalent in certain judicial districts with interstates and more vigorous traffic enforcement.
The COVID-19 pandemic and severe weather events also caused a significant drop in traffic tickets, Starns said.
Local public defender offices have become much more dependent on state funding allocated from Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers, Starns said, because of problems with collecting fees.
In 2019, the fees and other local funding made up 55% of local public defender office revenue. This year, they account for just 47%, Starns said.
Starns suggested the state reduce public defender costs by eliminating the death penalty, which eats up a lot of public defense resources.
“Capital defense is by its nature very resource intensive, and as long as there are capital cases in Louisiana, capital cases will be a significant drain on resources that could be made available to districts or other programs,” he wrote.
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