Louisiana Record

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Class-action suit alleges dearth of public defenders in Louisiana

By Sara McCleary | Mar 22, 2017

BATON ROUGE — A statewide, class-action lawsuit filed with the 19th District Court alleges that Louisiana’s poor lack access to effective legal representation when faced with criminal charges.

The lawsuit, filed on Feb. 6 in Baton Rouge according to the Times-Picayune, asserts that this failure of the state to provide effective public defenders has meant that those in need have not stood “equal before the law.” The suit names Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, along with the Louisiana Public Defender Board, as defendants.

The case hinges on the Sixth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which affirm the rights of all citizens to the “assistance of counsel” when charged with a criminal offense.

“Without effective attorneys, poor defendants across the state are left literally defenseless against the unchecked power of local prosecutors and police,” Mateya Kelley, the Jerry Shestack Justice Fellow with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is acting as co-counsel on the case, told the Louisiana Record.

Kelley said the system has always been built to fail.

“Louisiana has never been willing to do what it takes to provide real justice — real testing of the prosecution’s evidence — in its criminal courts,” she said.

The lawsuit filed with the court pointed out that officials have long been aware of the state of Louisiana’s public-defender system.

“Plaintiffs support their claim with admissions by the Louisiana Public Defender Board and State Public Defender and decades of findings, studies, and investigations by the Louisiana Supreme Court, the United States Department of Justice, social scientists, law professors, and government officials from both sides of the aisle describing the Louisiana public-defense system alternatively as ‘in shambles,’ ‘chronic[ally] underfunded,’... ‘on the verge of collapse,’ ‘beyond the crisis stage,’ ‘terrible,’ and ‘abysmal,’” the filing said.

That the situation has long been known has caused some to question why nothing has been done about it, and why a lawsuit is needed to address it.

“Public defenders represent only indigent defendants, so their clients are among the state’s poorest people,” Kelley said. “Moreover, on account of racial disparities at every step in the process, beginning with disparate levels of police interaction and arrest, a disproportionate number of public defenders’ clients are black Louisianans.

“On top of that, there seems to be an erroneous, common feeling that anyone who gets arrested did something wrong. So you’ve got an affected population of poor, disproportionately black folk, who people assume are criminals. The Constitution says that every individual is presumed innocent and stands equal before the law. As best I can tell, Louisiana policymakers just don’t believe either of those things and have never been willing to ensure them, so the state’s courts have to step in and enforce Louisianans’ constitutional rights.”

The suit is asking the court to declare that the plaintiffs, along with “all persons who are indigent and facing criminal charges in Louisiana … have been denied the right to counsel and equal protection under the United States and Louisiana constitutions.”

It requests an injunction preventing the defendants from continuing the broken public-defense system, and wants the court to “appoint a monitor to supervise the public-defense system until such time as it determines that defendants have implemented a system that provides effective representation for the poor statewide and dismantled the structural barriers to effective representation which exist in Louisiana.”

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