Corinne Warren, 22nd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office – St. Tammany, LA

To the Louisiana State Public Defender Board,

My name is Corinne Warren, and I am an Assistant Public Defender for the 22nd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, St. Tammany and Washington Parish.

What is happening in Lafayette is a tragedy. Public Defense is an absolute necessity to our democracy and to preserving the individual Constitutional rights each American is entitled to.

I began working in St. Tammany almost two years ago after I accepted a fellowship to come to St. Tammany Parish with Gideon’s Promise. I had no connection to Louisiana, and I just had finished at a Washington D.C. law school after attending Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and growing up in Connecticut. My family did not understand why, with my credentials and where I am from, I would venture into the deepest of the Deep South to work as a public defender, when I could have found other, easier, safer positions in Washington, New York, Boston, or back home in Connecticut.

But I came because Public Defenders who cared were needed—especially those without any reverence to the deplorable status quo in Louisiana, the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world: Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times that of Iran, 13 times China, and 20 times Germany.[1] And if the cost in lives is not enough, this misshapen system is a major burden on Louisiana’s taxpayers. In Fiscal Year 2014, Louisiana allocated $706 million to corrections, its third-largest expenditure and more than $150 million more than what it allocated to higher education.[2] In the past week, Governor John Bel Edwards’ administration has alerted that the state immediately would halt funding for the TOPS scholarship program, likely denying thousands of Louisiana students the opportunity to attend college. No cuts to Corrections have been offered to the legislature at this time.

This situation is despicable and inhumane, and has clear ties to the way Louisiana law enforcement is built and carried out, further underscoring the need for good public defenders. Many Louisiana inmates are on life sentence thanks to harsh state law provisions mandating life sentences simply for four or more conviction for drug possessions. Not distribution. Possession. In other words, Louisiana enforces drug addiction as a life sentence.

Until 2011, Louisiana law enforcement used an outdated—and long unconstitutional—sodomy statute to harass and force LGBT men and women, rendering them convicted felons and forcing them to register as sex offenders while heterosexual men and women faced only misdemeanor prostitution charges for the exact same conduct.

St. Tammany Parish used to be the laughingstock of Louisiana justice. For 30 years Walter Reed, a man who recently has been indicted on 18 counts of Corruption by the Federal Government, controlled everything as the District Attorney. The District Defender who preceded my boss John Lindner told his attorneys “not to make waves.”

We changed that. Mr. Lindner hired people like David Anderson (who just won an LACDL award this year for winning an argument at the Louisiana Supreme Court), Clarke Agre (a recent Vanderbilt graduate who has changed St. Tammany Parish’s Motions practice forever). He also hired some of the best from Orleans Public Defender such as James Carrington and Chanel Smith. Young, energetic attorneys, who weren’t doing this job to simply practice on poor people before moving on to private practice. Not only have those attorneys improved our office, but they have inspired the older attorneys to improve themselves and remember why they did this work in the first place.

St. Tammany stands up for its clients now. We argue motions in Misdemeanor Court. We aren’t scared to take our innocent clients to trial. We make sure our clients are not sitting in jail because they can’t afford a $75 signature bond. We appeal judges when they are wrong on the law. Children are no longer forced to go through the humiliation of being chained and shackled in St. Tammany Parish District Juvenile Court because a Public Defender said something. Without a good solid Public Defender’s office filled with attorneys that are dedicated to this work, these reforms would have never happened.

I am proud of what I do for a living, I am proud of my co-workers, and I am proud of every Public Defender in this state who is standing up to the system of Mass Incarceration.

When you don’t make waves, innocent people go to jail. The poor who cannot afford bail sit in jail for months on end before they ever enter a courtroom. People who should have been brought to trial decades earlier don’t have Motions to Quash filed on their behalf. People who should have had an attorney are forgotten and left to rot in anguish in a system the state has not supplied them the education to understand.

Having a Public Defender office that can support its attorneys, and attract the best and brightest is absolutely necessary—and that’s what Lafayette was. Many of my fellowship classmates from Gideon’s Promise—the organization that brought me to Louisiana—were headed to Lafayette coming from top schools from outside of Louisiana, like myself. My colleagues Leo Costales, Jane Hogan, Clare Svendson, Jack Talaska, Lili Hangartner, and many others have done more good for the poor in Lafayette than I can begin to place into words.

Removing them from Lafayette is removing attorneys that care. Removing attorneys that want to improve and fight a system that is the shame of America. And by allowing Public Defender offices to be closed because the government is too broken to attempt to protect its most vulnerable is not only an outright denial of the poor of Lafayette’s Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer, but an endorsement of these horrifying realities we face in Louisiana. By giving up on Lafayette, we give up on making Louisiana a better place to live.

I for one, stand with my brothers and sisters who have given themselves to the poor of Lafayette and salute the reforms they have created.

Fund Lafayette. We cannot afford not to.

 

Sincerely,

 

Corinne Elizabeth Warren, Esq.

Public Defender

 

 

[1] See, NOLA.COM, May 29, 2012, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2012/05/louisiana_is_the_worlds_prison.html.

[2] See, The Henry Jay Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014, http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-of-general-fund-spending/.

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