With the utter breakdown of the public defender system in Louisiana showing no sign of abating, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has published a profile of an average public defense attorney who has remained loyal to the cause despite having every conceivable reason to find a new job. In a detail that English teachers in Louisiana would no doubt describe as the perfect example of irony if Louisiana education budgets weren’t sitting on the chopping block alongside the public defender system, the article notes that the defender’s office is so broke it can’t even afford a lawyer for itself.
A quick refresher if you haven’t been following the story: Louisiana is in the midst of a devastating budget crisis, largely thanks to former governor Bobby Jindal’s support of the biggest tax cut in the history of the state and his stubborn refusal to consider new sources of revenue. Every state institution is feeling the pain—the current governor has even threatened to cancel LSU football—but none more acutely than public defender offices, and nowhere more acutely than in New Orleans. For several months, the office there has been turning clients away, because it is so short-staffed it cannot handle their cases. People are sitting in jail without having been given a lawyer, unsure if they’ll ever get one.
In January, after the New Orleans Public Defender Board stopped giving representation to certain felony defendants, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against it. The board, after just having announced it could no longer afford to provide attorneys to people who have been accused of attempted murder or armed robbery, responded by saying that it didn’t have enough money to represent itself in court, either. From today’s Times-Picayune piece:
The American Civil Liberties Union responded to Bunton’s announcement by suing his office, alleging that the lack of legal representation violated indigent defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights. Bunton said the Orleans Public Defender cannot afford to represent itself in the suit. Mark Surprenant of the Adams and Reese law firm has agreed to represent it for free.
The profile focuses on Lauren Anderson, a three-year public defense attorney, and also highlights another, less obvious facet of the havoc in New Orleans’s criminal justice system. Since last year, hundreds of detainees from the city have been moved to jails as far as 300 miles away, due to a shortage of beds in local facilities. (Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world.) Even if Anderson is able to represent a client, her work may be limited by the four-hour drive each she must take to consult with them before trial.
Public defenders in several other Louisiana parishes have also turned away clients, and the situation may get worse before it gets better. The state legislature is currently working on solutions to the budget crisis, and according to the Times-Picayune, those solutions may involve more cuts to the state public defender board.