Public defenders are responsible for representing indigent criminal defendants facing imprisonment. While it may seem that public defenders work for free – their meager salaries hardly suggest otherwise – the State is responsible for paying for indigent defense. But for the Sixth Amendment back-stop, it’s probably fair to say that the State of Louisiana would not provide its poor with defense counsel out of the goodness of its bureaucratic heart. (Having the nation’s highest rate of incarceration apparently is a badge of honor.) Even with the Constitutional mandate, however, funding for the Public Defender here is woefully – and arguably unconstitutionally – inadequate. Historically, the local Public Defender has been financed by revenue from parking tickets and court fines. The former essentially dried up after Hurricane Katrina; the latter presents an unsavory (and likely unconstitutional) conflict of interest when the Public Defender earns its keep when its clients are convicted and have to pay fines.
The judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court recently concluded that the floundering system has imperiled the Public Defender’s ability to provide an adequate defense for all its indigent clients as the Constitution requires. True enough. Curiously, however, the judges blame the Public Defender’s recently implemented “policies and practices” for the breach, and the judges have threatened to hold the board that oversees the Public Defender in contempt if more public defenders are not hired. The offending policies and practices are things like hiring full-time public defenders, establishing a central office, and setting up a networked computer system to track cases – all changes recommended by every independent study (including one by the U.S. Department of Justice) of the problems with public defense in Orleans Parish. Nor do the judges even hint where the money will come from to hire more public defenders, to say nothing of the fact that attracting competent lawyers at $29,000 per year is no small task. Thus, the judges’ criticism sounds a lot like blaming teachers for a poor education system when the State fails to allocate sufficient funds to buy textbooks and hire enough qualified teachers to maintain a proper student-teacher ratio. I guess the Public Defender should take a page out of the PTA playbook and hold a bake sale to close the gap in funding.
Perhaps the judges’ threatened contempt proceedings are better directed at the Governor. It is the State, after all, that is responsible for ensuring that competent lawyers are provided to those who cannot afford them. (The Public Defender board is at the State’s mercy for funding.) If the State were serious about discharging this obligation, it would follow the federal model and consider funding the Public Defender in the same manner and to the same extent as the State’s Prosecutors. And if the State’s not willing to do that, the least it can do is dispatch more meter maids – or eat more cupcakes.