In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which unanimously held the Constitution's fair trial and due process provisions require appointment of defense counsel for an indigent charged with a felony in state court.
That guarantee may not be good in parts of Louisiana, however. Critically short on funds and staff, public defender offices throughout the state find themselves unable to provide needed services. Many public defender offices in Louisiana - coincidentally the state with the nation's highest incarceration rate - are on the verge of shutting down or have put new would-be clients on waiting lists. About 85% of all defendants look for representation by public defenders.
Meanwhile, judges in some local courts are ordering private lawyers, some without experience in criminal law or courts, to defend indigent clients, or considering alternatives such as postponing trials or even releasing prisoners if unable to meet constitutional speedy trial requirements.
The crisis did not catch the Pelican State unawares: for years it has been predicted, caused by undependable revenue sources, shrinking budgets and political paralysis. The leader of a campaign to win adequate state funding for state public defender offices says the crisis illustrates the "instability, unreliability and inadequacy" of the state's current system.
Until the state passed a reorganization law in 2007, the court in each jurisdiction set up its own Indigent Defense Board and acted independently in running the public defender function. The 2007 law created the Louisiana Public Defender Board and set standards for openness and accountability.
What the consolidated system lacked then, and still does now, is a reliable funding source. Unlike every other state, Louisiana funds public defender offices primarily through local governments: around two-thirds of their funds come from traffic fines and court fees (for example, every local criminal conviction in Louisiana carries a $45 fee to help support public defender offices).
Changing law enforcement focus, growth of diversion programs, and other factors have reduced those local revenues. The state's faltering economy and budgetary woes (there's about a $1 billion shortfall in next year's budget, due in October) mean little help is forthcoming from the state. The predictable result of the revenue crunch: cutbacks in funds for lawyers and investigators in public defender offices.
For example, four years ago, the New Orleans public defender's office had a $9.5 million budget; it's now operating on $6 million, and took a $700,000 funding cut this year. To cope with a growing caseload but fewer staff attorneys - which, one study found, leaves each lawyer on its dwindling staff an annual caseload of about 350 cases, and about seven minutes to prepare for each new case - the New Orleans office announced January 11 it could not accept most new felony defendants.
Soon thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a class-action federal lawsuit against its traditional ally, the public defender's office, for failing to meet its responsibilities. The lawsuit also claims the situation wrongly deprives indigent defendants of their rights to be represented in court, and means they're locked up longer while awaiting court hearings. The still-pending lawsuit seems aimed at pressing the state legislature to provide adequate funds for essential public defender services.