Dear Members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board,
I am writing you to express my extreme concern regarding the current crisis the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office is facing due to a lack of funding. Like most of my coworkers, my primary concern is not for the security of my own position as an Assistant Public Defender but for the devastating effect that the cuts currently expected will have on the criminal justice system in the 15th Judicial District.
I expect that by now you have been made aware of the numbers regarding how many attorney positions will be eliminated from our office. I have been working for the 15th JDC Public Defender’s Office for about two and a half years. During that time I have always had a caseload of at least 200 felony cases at a time. While such a heavy caseload has been difficult to manage and is far beyond that recommended by national standards, I feel that I have always provided quality representation. With the expected cuts my caseload will increase dramatically, to a level where I simply will no longer be able to provide quality, or even adequate, representation.
As members of the Public Defender board I know you understand the importance of the work we do and also that the role we play is constitutionally mandated. We do not just represent poor criminals, we work on the front lines of the criminal justice system to ensure that citizens’ constitutional rights are protected and even to ensure that those who are accused of crimes and incarcerated by our government are not in fact innocent. If our office becomes so short-staffed that we are unable to continue to provide adequate representation it will not simply be an issue of criminal defendants having to wait longer to receive the assistance of counsel, the result will be that many citizens of Louisiana, some of whom inevitably will be innocent, will languish in jail for months without ever having the chance to speak to an attorney.
We should not only be concerned about the effect of the expected cuts from a moral standpoint, but also from a practical standpoint. First, the lack of funding will lead to many valid lawsuits against the state for claims arising from the wrongful incarceration or wrongful conviction of defendants who were not provided an attorney or not provided an attorney capable of effectively assisting them. This will not only cause our state to incur great expense in the long run, it will be a black eye on our criminal justice system.
Secondly, victims of serious crimes and their families who should be given the opportunity to see their cases brought to court in a reasonable amount of time will see the cases of those accused of crimes against them continued indefinitely. Under the expected cuts to our office I will be forced to withdraw from all cases in which the defendant is not incarcerated and seek a stay of prosecution and continuance until we receive additional funding. This is necessary because with the expected cuts the full time attorneys who remain employed by our office will be forced to take on all of the incarcerated clients who were formerly represented by the contract attorneys and by the full time attorneys whose positions have been eliminated.
For example, I currently have two Second Degree Murder cases, one Vehicular Homicide case, one Aggravated Rape case, and five cases in which the defendant is charged with a sex offense against a minor in which the defendants are not incarcerated. These cases, several of which are already three years old, will likely be continued without date because the defendant will not be represented. Additionally, I currently have three clients who are incarcerated in Second Degree Murder cases and two clients incarcerated with pending Attempted First Degree Murder of a Police Officer charges. Although I will still be representing those incarcerated clients it is likely that their cases will also now be continued until my caseload allows me to be sufficiently prepared to take such serious cases to trial.
My last plea to you is made simply on the basis of having pride in Louisiana, how we treat the least among us, and how our criminal justice system operates. A good number of my fellow Assistant Public Defenders in the 15th JDC Public Defender’s Office moved to Lafayette from different places around the country to do this work. Most of them came on fellowships from their law schools or from national public interest groups such as Gideon’s Promise and they were sent to Louisiana because of its reputation of having one of the most broken criminal justice systems in the United States. As a lifelong resident of South Louisiana, a part of me bristles when I hear these coworkers talking about how differently the system operates here and how much less the rights of the indigent seem to be protected.
I want to be able to respond to these comments by arguing that Louisiana is a place that provides all of its citizens the same rights. While I previously stood on shaky ground when making these arguments, I will be completely unable to make this argument if the funding crisis at our office is not addressed.
I take a lot of pride in the steps our office has taken in the last several years to close the gap between how the criminal justice system operates in Louisiana and much of the rest of the country. If the pending cuts to our budget are not addressed, however, much of that progress will be reversed and our office will be less able to fulfill our duty than at any point in our history. In that scenario the difference in the quality of representation received by those who can afford an attorney and those who cannot will be so vast that citizens of Louisiana and outsiders alike will be able to accurately complain that in Louisiana, money buys justice.