Everyone knows that in America, you have a right to an attorney. Rich, poor, no matter what. If you’re facing a criminal trial, you’ll have a lawyer to represent you, if you want one. Except, it turns out, if you live in Louisiana.
The press has referred to a public defender “meltdown” or “crisis” in Louisiana lately, and that sounds about right. In New Orleans, the ACLU is suing the public defenders’ office over its refusal to give representation to certain felony defendants. Public defenders’ offices are turning away people in a slew of other parishes, too. “It’s a nightmare,” the state public defender said recently. “You have people in jail that don’t have lawyers. It’s that basic.”
Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any place in the entire world. It’s hard to imagine that depriving people of lawyers will help.
The problem, of course, is money. Louisiana is completely strapped for cash. Some parishes rely on traffic tickets to fund their indigent defense services, and some of them don’t have enough money to hire patrolmen who can write tickets. Why don’t they have money? It probably has something to do with how Governor Bobby Jindal utterly destroyed his state’s budget by supporting a historic tax cut and subsequently vowing not to raise taxes.
As Bill Quigley pointed out at the Huffington Post, the state public defender has said that more than half of the state’s local public defenders’ offices will become insolvent in the next several months.
What is to be done? Well, maybe some miraculous invention will cure Louisiana’s fiscal woes. Beyond that—considering that the Pelican state is definitely not the only place where indigent defense is not working as intended—maybe some federal money could help shore up the budget. But would anyone be willing to spend it? Hillary? Bernie? Bueller?
John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor, put forth the idea on Twitter this morning.