Dear Members of the Board,
I write in regards to the future viability of the Lafayette Parish Public Defender Office, an office facing crushing funding cuts that would result in nearly one‐half of the staff attorneys being removed. As a member of the criminal defense community, I am acutely aware of the statewide crisis that Louisiana’s public defenders face. However, the Lafayette Parish office is unique. In the past few years, it has come to symbolize what Louisiana public defenders offices could accomplish when bright, committed, client‐centered attorneys partner with visionary management. It is an office that shines as an example of the level of representation poor people accused of crimes in Louisiana deserve. It is an office with a national reputation. It is an office that I urge this Board to save.
I do not write this Board from an abstract or theoretical position. For the past twelve years, I have served as senior capital counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights. In that capacity, I have collaborated and consulted with many attorneys from the Lafayette Public Defender Office. For the past eight years, I have been a faculty member at Gideon’s Promise and have trained nearly all of the attorneys in that office. For the past year, as a Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown, I have encouraged and directed talented young students to start their careers at the Lafayette Public Defender Office because it is an amazing group of people. I have visited their offices; I have sat in the 15th Judicial Circuit courtrooms to watch their lawyers; I have read their motions and pleadings; I have seen them interact with clients; I have witnessed their triumphs and mourned their losses. And as this Board knows, that office best represents the future of public defense in Louisiana.
This Board is also keenly aware of what the 15th Judicial Circuit used to represent. Before that office revolutionized its staff and its practices, the level of representation provided poor people in Lafayette was abysmal. The threatened cuts will ensure the return of a grossly unconstitutional system of processing poor people straight into prison.
I know that this Board does not want a return to the standard of practice that infected the 15th Judicial Circuit years ago. I also believe, fervently, that each and every member of this Board has a desire to improve indigent defense that is not grounded in statutes or rules, but out of a real commitment to ensuring that poor people are fairly treated. In other words, I believe that this Board supports public defense. You have also been placed in an untenable position. Cuts, I understand, will occur. But not all offices are created equally. And this office, in particular, needs to be saved.
The road to reforming criminal defense practices in Louisiana has been long and difficult. But it is undeniable that there had been a radical transformation in Lafayette. But Lafayette does not represent the norm; it is the exception. It is a model for what other offices could be. It is an inspiration. It is a shining star in an otherwise bleak sky. If this office dies, it kills hope.
Perhaps the easiest path in implementing budget cuts is to impose across the board cuts – everyone feels the same pain. But this Board certainly recognizes that Lafayette is different. It serves as a model for what will be. So I implore this Board to make the hard choice – that there are offices that deserves this Board’s support more than other offices. The offices that employ contract lawyers will survive. Those lawyers will return. But the young public defenders in Lafayette – people from around the nation who have ventured to Louisiana to be part of a movement to change indigent defense – are not in that position. They will be lost. And losing Lafayette is a loss Louisiana cannot bear.
This is a crisis not of your making. But you have been forced to make the hard choices. I implore you to save the best.
/s/ William R. Montross,
Jr. William R. Montross, Jr.
Visiting Professor of Law Georgetown University