Dear Board Members:
I am writing in support of one of your best Public Defender Offices, the 15th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office in Lafayette Parish. It is my understanding that following Governor Edwards’ recent budget proposal which requires all state agencies to cut their budgets you are considering effectively closing this public defender office and returning to the contract-based system used in the past. For many reasons, I urge you to not do so.
I am in my 21st year as a lawyer, and have spent every single day of my career as a public defender. I am currently the Supervisory Assistant Public Defender for the Federal Defenders of the Middle District of Georgia, supervising the Columbus, GA office which covers roughly one-half of the Middle District of Georgia. I have practiced in the Georgia state public defender system early in my career as well as my time in the federal system. Most relevant to my plea to you is the time I spent in Louisiana in the late 1990’s as a staff attorney the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center.
When I arrived in Orleans Parish in 1997, I came directly from three years as a staff attorney in the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office in Atlanta, GA. I thought I had a handle on the systemic problems in urban criminal justice systems. What I found in Orleans Parish however, made me feel naïve and simply uninformed. At the time, the public defender’s office in Orleans Parish was a part-time model. The attorneys were salaried employees, charged with representing all felony defendants in their assigned courtroom. However, they were free to engage in the private practice of law as well. The only limitation was that they could not take private criminal cases in Orleans Parish. As you well remember, that system produced incomprehensibly poor representation for felony defendants in Orleans Parish, as the majority of the Orleans Parish public defenders used their salaries as simply their base income, and spent most of their time engaged in the private practice of law. The effects of this poor representation are still seen today, as the reversal exoneration rate for major felony convictions during that time continues to this day, and continues to make news.
Following Hurricane Katrina that Orleans Parish Office was rebuilt on a proper model, and has dramatically changed the criminal justice system in Orleans Parish. In the same way, Paul Marx and his staff have changed the criminal justice system in Lafayette Parish through hard work, diligence, and an unwavering commitment to providing the best representation for their clients. As a Core Faculty member of Gideon’s Promise, I have had the great honor of being involved in the training of many young lawyers in the Lafayette office. I know their commitment, their dedication, and the high quality of care they provide for their clients. They are able to do this, in part, because they work as a group in an office of like-minded colleagues. Make no mistake, the collective effect is incredibly important as it allows those attorneys to both provide immediate help to their clients, as well as to sustain the long-term quality as well. Lafayette Parish, the entire community, is much the better for the existence of that office.
A healthy criminal justice system, where both the prosecution and the defense provide zealous, ethical advocacy in well-supported environment, makes for a healthy community. Louisiana is lucky to have a few such Public Defender offices, and Lafayette is one of them. If you do your duty, and focus on your stated mission of advocating for clients (supporting practitioners and protecting the public by continually improving the services guaranteed by the constitutional right to counsel) then you will make the right decision and continue funding the Lafayette office. They are doing the work that fulfills your mission. They are a model for the way things should be done. And they are a beacon of light for those parishes that still suffer with inadequate representation of those your agency is sworn to defend.
Timothy R. Saviello