As inmates languish in jail without public defenders, lawsuits start rolling in

By Carrie Salls | May 11, 2016

NEW ORLEANS –Two New Orleans attorneys recently filed lawsuits on behalf of four inmates who have been incarcerated for months following their arrests without representation, victims of a budget crisis that has resulted in a lengthy waiting list for public defender services.

William Quigley, an attorney with the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, and Anna Lellelid, an attorney at the Louisiana Community Law Office, filed petitions for habeas corpus and motions for release against Concordia Parish Sheriff Kenneth Hedrick on behalf of Romando Russell, Tara Michelle Allen and James Malone in the 7th Judicial District Court in Concordia Parish on May 5, and against Winn Parish Sheriff Cranford Jordan on behalf of Kenneth Bratton in the 8th Judicial District Court in Winn Parish on the same date.

All four are facing charges in Winn Parish, but the petitions for Russell, Allen and Malone were filed in Concordia because Louisiana state law requires the petitions be filed in the parish in which the arrestees are incarcerated.

Lellelid said the 8th Judicial District Public Defender has been mired in a restriction of services because of a lack of funding since April 2015 and has been placing indigent defendants on a waitlist for representation. This financial crisis stems from dramatic budget cuts to the Louisiana Public Defender Board and, as a result, the public defender offices across Louisiana.

“We filed (these) four petitions to start with, but we know and have good information that those four are only a snapshot of a much larger problem in Louisiana,” Lellelid told the Louisiana Record. “The 8th District Public Defender, Mr. Herman Castete informed us that there are many more who are unrepresented and sitting in jail awaiting trial in his district. That does not include the hundreds who are jailed around the state without attorneys.”

Three of the four plaintiffs in the suit were arrested in 2015. Malone was arrested in January. 

After his April 20, 2015 arrest, Russell complained of a conflict with the 8th District public defender and has not had an attorney since Dec. 15, 2015. Allen was arrested on July 28, 2015, and has never had an attorney. Malone was arrested on Jan. 27 and has never had an attorney. Bratton has been in Winn Parish jail since being arrested on June 17, 2015 and has not had an attorney since his arrest.

Louisiana is the only state that funds its public defense offices mainly from traffic tickets. Lellelid said this leaves no steady source of funding from the legislature for indigent defense.

“With the decrease in revenue from traffic tickets and the state's budget crisis, the district public defense offices have been forced to make major cuts from Westlaw (legal research) access to critical personnel to placing people on waitlists for representation,” Lellelid said.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits holding a detainee before trial without effective counsel, while Louisiana law requires accused individuals to be released from custody within 72 hours if no counsel has been appointed in that timeframe.

In addition, Lellelid acknowledged that keeping these individuals in jail “delays any disposition in their cases and overcrowds an already overcrowded jail system.”

“Keeping poor people locked up because they do not have the money to hire an attorney and because the state is not ensuring that they get one creates an unequal justice system,” Lellelid said. “A defendant who has the money to hire an attorney would be in a better position to post bail and get out of jail, investigate the allegations against her, and defend herself at every critical stage of her case. Louisiana has to change this system and better fund indigent defense across the state.”

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Organizations in this Story

Louisiana Public Defender Board Loyola University New Orleans

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