BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Public Defender Board is under fire for how it funds defendant representation in capital murder cases and is the target of a state House Bill that would winnow its membership as the state's public defenders crisis continues to deepen.
House Bill 1137, formerly House Bill 818, sponsored by Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany), would reduce the Louisiana Public Defender Board's membership from 15 to 11 and would make other changes to the board's funding.
That legislation is one of the more recent developments in the state's public defenders crisis. In March, the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the state's Supreme Court Chief Justice issued dire warnings about the state's underfunded public defenders offices, a problem that has been accumulating for years.
With strained operating budgets and no relief in sight, some parishes have restricted the rights of indigent defendants, which have left many languishing in jail. Thirty-three of the state's 42 public defenders offices have been forced to restrict services and as many as half of those offices are on the verge of being insolvent.
A federal court is set to consider whether the public defenders crisis in Louisiana has created a debtors prison system in the state.
Against that backdrop, House Bill 1137 would seem to be just one more flash point, but Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director E. Pete Adams told the Louisiana Record that would miss its real importance.
"The bill is much more than that," Adams said in an email interview. "There is mounting evidence that the board has been and is operating in a fiscally irresponsible manner. This board must be re-organized to give local public defenders more voice and a greater share of available funding. That is exactly what HB 1137 seeks to accomplish. It removes four law professors from the board, gives local (public defenders) some voice and directs 65 percent of the state appropriation to the locals."
The bill cleared the House on April 18 with a vote of 93 yeas to 3 nays, with only Reps. Lawrence A. "Larry" Bagley (R - Stonewall), Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) and Edward C. "Ted" James II, (D-Baton Rouge) voting against the bill. Eight state Representatives -- Neil C. Abramson (D-New Orleans), James K. Armes III (D Leesville), Kenny R. Cox (D-Natchitoches), Julie Emerson (R-Carencro), Bob Hensgens (R-Abbeville), Mike Johnson (R-Bossier City), Barbara M. Norton (D-Shreveport) and Scott M. Simon (R-Abita Springs) -- were absent.
The bill now is in the Senate Committee on Judiciary B.
Louisiana District Attorneys Association's interest in the legislation is fairly recent, Adams said.
"The district attorneys had adopted a neutral position on this bill until recently when we decided that the board's decisions were directly and unnecessarily leading to halting felony prosecutions in many jurisdictions across the state," Adams said. "The chief public defender recently admitted that, if the board would direct only 60 percent of the state appropriated $33 million to local (public defenders), there would be no restriction of services in any district. Why on Earth would they not have already done so to avoid stalling hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases? Maybe to create a case for more funding?"
Louisiana's Public Defender, James T. Dixon Jr., who answers to the Louisiana Public Defender Board, has repeatedly and vehemently denied accusations brought up by the board's detractors, stating the board responsibly distributes its insufficient resources. Board officials have said expenditures in the state's death penalty litigation actually assist local offices because state-funded non-profit law firms take over those cases, freeing local officers to handle less complicated and less expensive cases.
Adams countered that those death penalty cases are not the whole problem.
"The issue of capital case funding is illustrative, but not exhaustive of the board's failings," he said. "There are many other suspect policies that this board should reconsider. Most local public defenders agree, but are fearful to speak up. This bill was generated by a few brave local (public defenders). More and more of them are having the courage to support it. They now have our support as well."