Dear Judge Burns:
I am the President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that partners with public defender offices in resourced-challenged jurisdictions to improve the standard of representation for the poor. We help to recruit passionate defenders who are committed to joining the effort to reform indigent defense and provide ongoing training and mentorship as they learn to be excellent advocates today and develop into the leaders we need for the future. This is accomplished through our three-year Core 101 Program designed to provide new lawyers with the continued training and support they need to become great public defenders. We have worked closely with the offices in Lafayette, Orleans, and St. Tammany Parishes over the last several years as they have fought to improve indigent defense services.
I know the Board has received numerous letters expressing the view that supporting Lafayette is critical to the larger mission of improving indigent defense in Louisiana, including one from me. I have been involved in reform efforts across the country and appreciate that there are very few offices nationwide that have established themselves as models. Lafayette is one of the most obvious. I agree with those who say that saving Lafayette is a wise investment, because it is becoming a shining example for others districts to emulate. You can ill afford to lose one of the few offices that is living up to our aspirations.
Unlike offices that might employ local lawyers who will be available when the crisis passes, Lafayette has built its office with lawyers from across the country eager to join a reform movement. These are incredibly passionate and dedicated defenders who are in Lafayette for one purpose. If the office closes they will be forced to leave. Many will not be in a position to return. Once reopened the office will not be able to rebuild all it has accomplished in the last few years. Louisiana will lose a desperately needed model.
So I agree with all of the letters that urge the Board to find a way to keep a model office so critical to transforming a culture that placed little value on the right to counsel. But I write this letter to lay out a strong economic reason to save Lafayette. Although I alluded to this in my previous letter, I felt it important to back the argument up with figures.
Two years ago we launched our Law School Partnership Project (LSPP). The idea was to create a pipeline for graduates from law schools across the country to begin careers in public defense in systems that most need them. The LSPP recognizes that recruiting and developing the best future lawyers into public defense is essential to building first-rate defender offices. But because third year law students, who will not be barred until the fall after they graduate, need to have job offers in hand during the spring of their third year so they can register for the relevant Bar exam, it was hard to get good candidates to our partner offices. These offices could not afford to keep a vacancy unfilled for six between the time offers had to be extended and the time the graduate would be available to begin work. So many of our offices had to fill vacancies with unemployed local lawyers who were ready to take on a caseload immediately. These were frequently less than ideal candidates.
The LSPP remedied this problem by partnering with law schools that agreed to pay the salary for one year of its graduates who joined one of our partner offices. In exchange, the office would agree to hire the graduate as a permanent employee at the end of the year, assuming the lawyer’s performance was satisfactory over that period. Gideon’s Promise has also been able to raise funds to help offset the bulk of the cost of the Core 101 Program for many of the LSPP lawyers.
During the first two years of the LSPP we have placed 12 lawyers in Louisiana offices – seven in Lafayette, three in Orleans, and two in St. Tammany. We are scheduled to place an additional seven lawyers this year. There are variations in starting salaries among these offices and the extent to which they cover benefits for the LSPP fellows. Assuming the most conservative scenario, starting salaries of $40,000 per year and no savings in benefits (this is the situation in St. Tammany), the LSPP has saved the state of Louisiana $480,000 over the past two years and will save an additional $280,000 next year. Gideon’s Promise has also been able to raise additional scholarship money to offset the usual cost of the three-year Core 101 Program by $4500 for many of these lawyers. Eight of these additional scholarships went to Louisiana LSPP lawyers for an added savings of $3600 in training costs. Even with this low savings estimate, in total, over three years, the LSPP will save Louisiana $763,600 – $760,000 in salaries and $3600 in training costs.
However, because Lafayette starts lawyers at roughly $51,000 and does not pay fellows benefits, which the office estimates to save roughly $7000 per lawyer per year, there is an additional $18,000 saving per lawyer in Lafayette. Given that ten LSPP lawyers will be placed in Lafayette by next year, there is an additional $180,000 in savings to Louisiana.
In other words, if these offices hired the same number of lawyers without the benefit of LSPP between 2015 and 2017 they would spend at least $940,000 in salary and benefits that they will not need to spend. This does not include the benefit of participation in Gideon’s Promise.
The recent crisis facing Lafayette has me particularly concerned. The office has already been forced to lay off its contract lawyers. It is now faced with the threat of having to lay off full time public defenders. Most of these lawyers have been recruited and trained by Gideon’s Promise, with seven being products of the LSPP. Apart from the irreparable damage it will do to the amazing progress made to date in improving public defense, if these lawyers lose their jobs, and we are unable to fulfill our commitment to the law schools we have partnered with, this will almost certainly end the flow of law students – and salaries – coming to Lafayette in the future. My broader concern is that if this crisis is seen as an indication that Louisiana is not a place where law schools can confidently send graduates, the LSPP pipeline will close off to all our partners in the State.
The LSPP has proven to be very beneficial to your efforts in Louisiana. We currently have 20 partner law schools from every region of the country. More schools are joining each year. I am confident this initiative will continue to grow in the future. There is no telling how valuable this initiative could be to Louisiana going forward.
I fear that if the Board does not ensure that Lafayette remains viable our ability to continue this important partnership between Louisiana and LSPP will be in jeopardy.
Thank you for your commitment to indigent defense and for taking the time to listen to the many concerned voice weighing in during such trying times.