BATON ROUGE – Louisiana's American Civil Liberties Union has thrown its weight behind the state's Supreme Court Chief Justice's dire warnings about the present crisis of underfunded public defenders that has left thousands of litigants on waiting lists.
"Yes, we agree with the Chief Justice that the lack of properly trained and funded public defenders will reverberate throughout the justice system in ways that will be crippling," Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman told the Louisiana Record. "Not only will there be wrongful convictions and an increase in post-conviction litigation, but jails will become overcrowded, court dockets will be backed up for years, not to mention the toll on the people caught in the breach."
The Louisiana Branch of the ACLU is suing Orleans Parish over its refusal to take on cases of poor defendants.
Esman's Louisiana Record interview came on the heels of Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson's address before state legislators on March 15 when she warned that underfunded public defenders could dearly cost the state in conviction reversals and retrials.
Johnson said 33 of the state's 42 public defenders offices have been forced to restrict services and as many as half of those offices will be insolvent within months.
The constitutional guarantee of an attorney for those who can't afford one is under threat nationwide. Depending on jurisdiction, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of criminal defendants need to be represented by publicly-funded attorneys, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report. That right is being undercut by unavailable counsel, excessive caseloads, a lack of enforceable standards, underfunding and a lack of independence, according to a National Legal Aid & Defender Association report.
However, Louisiana has attracted the most attention for what the New York Times in its Saturday, March 19 edition, called a "statewide free fall" of inability to provide adequate public defense. In Louisiana, the large majority of criminal defendants are represented by public defenders but decades of underfunding have steadily created the present crisis.
"Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those who remain with caseloads well into the hundreds," the New York Times piece said. "In seven of the state’s 42 judicial districts, poor defendants are already being put on wait lists; here in the 15th, the list is over 2,300 names long and growing."
Warnings from the ACLU's and state Supreme Court's chief members are only the latest in a rising number of voices calling for better funding and reform. Orleans Public Defender Tina Peng wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece last September that detailed how impossible it is for her to do a good job for her clients. That led to New Orleans Criminal District Court judge Arthur Hunter’s summons to Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton for a hearing on the adequacy of public defense in New Orleans.
Soon after, a now taken-down crowdfunding website reportedly raised at least $25,000 for Orleans Public Defenders, thanks in large part to a boost from its mention on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
That wasn't enough to offset the office's $600,000 budget deficit, hiring freeze and attrition of 12 attorneys since July 2015. In January, Orleans Parish Defender's office announced it would take on no new cases, which lead to the Louisiana ACLU's lawsuit.
“The system must have a reliable source of funding that is not dependent on fines levied against the public,” Esman told the Louisiana Record shortly after the lawsuit was filed Jan. 14. “Prosecutors have reliable budgets; and for the justice system to be fair, both sides must have predictable, reliable resources that allow them to do their jobs in a fully professional manner.”