BATON ROUGE — Meredith Angelson, a senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC], blames the state for issues with Louisiana’s public defender system’s handling of poor defendants.
“Public defenders are suffering from a lack of resources,” Angelson told the Louisiana Record. “We think this is a problem that stems from the state.”
Angelson said there are not enough lawyers, staff members or supervisors.
“There are just too few lawyers handling too many cases,” she said.
SPLC and others filed a class-action lawsuit against the Louisiana Public Defender Board and Gov. John Bel Edwards, claiming that the system violates the rights of the state’s poorest defendants.
Angelson said standards put in place are not being enforced by state regulators and sufficient training is not being conducted.
“[It’s] not just about money,” Angelson said, “It is also about the public defenders’ board… doing its job for poor people.”
In addition, Angelson said SPLC hope the legal action results in a “cultural shift” toward public defenders and the rights of the defendants being taken more seriously.
Angelson said the focus of the lawsuit is not excessive waiting periods for defendants. She said that was a problem in the past when districts were being consolidated, but those waiting lists “have largely been extinguished.”
Angelson said none of SPLC’s clients are lacking representation. Instead, she said the lawyers who have been assigned to the clients are not able to do a good enough job because of the lack of resources and training. As a result of these problems, “clients are at risk,” she said.
Angelson said there have been efforts made through lawsuits filed across the country for years to improve the strength of the public defender systems. She said Louisiana’s efforts are somewhat unique because the state has the highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the highest rates of wrongful convictions.
Angelson said the Louisiana public defender system is funded by user fees and fines paid by defendants, and that needs to change.
“That’s a very unstable way of funding public defense,” she said.
According to information released by SPLC, the lawsuit cites a report compiled by a law professor who has more than 40 years of experience in public defense issues.
“If granted class-action status, rulings in the case would apply to the approximately 20,000 indigent defendants facing noncapital criminal charges in Louisiana, potentially reforming the failed system,” according to the SPLC report.
The state’s failing system “has created a two-tiered justice system in Louisiana – one for those with the money for meaningful representation in court and another for the poor that simply churns them through the system without providing them the meaningful defense required by the Constitution,” according to Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director, in the report.
The motion for class certification and court findings were filed with the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge Parish.