The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is suing the state of Louisiana alleging that officials are denying poor people their constitutional right to counsel by failing to establish an effective statewide public defense system, according to an SPLC press release.
Last year, a funding crisis forced as many as 33 out of 42 public defender offices to stop accepting cases or to place clients, many of whom were in jail, on waiting lists. In December, Louisiana’s chief justice declared an “emergency shortfall” in public defense funding.
Louisiana is the only state in the country that relies primarily on court fees and fines to fund public defender services – including a fee assessed against convicted indigent defendants. The state Legislature supplements local funding sources with state funds, but this discretionary allocation always falls far short of what is needed. The indigent defense system has been under fire for more than 50 years.
Eighty five percent of people accused of a crime in Louisiana are indigent. Louisiana also has the nation’s highest incarceration rate and the second-highest wrongful conviction rate. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color, particularly African Americans, who comprise nearly 70 percent of the state prison population.
The U.S. and Louisiana constitutions guarantee the right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel to anyone charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment. Lawyers are required to communicate with their client about strategy, to conduct an investigation, pursue discovery, research legal issues, file appropriate pretrial motions and advocate for the client in court. The attorney also must possess the skill, training and time to adequately complete these requirements. In Louisiana, system-wide defects prevent public defenders from satisfying these basic obligations.
The number of public defenders and other professionals needed for a functioning public defense system in Louisiana falls far below national standards. Most criminal defendants in the state receive attorneys in name only.
The system has not provided adequate representation for decades. Poor people often sit in jail for months before a public defender is appointed or takes up the case, according to the complaint. While their cases stagnate, jobs are lost, children are left without parents and evidence becomes stale.
Without timely appointment of counsel, the poor are denied any meaningful investigation of the prosecution’s case, advocacy during arraignments and bond hearings that could result in a reduction or dismissal of charges or release on bond, access to witnesses and evidence, and assistance with plea negotiations.
Even when attorneys are finally provided, public defenders in Louisiana – who regularly carry two to five times the number of cases recommended under the already inflated Louisiana Public Defender Board’s standards – are often so overwhelmed that they can do little more than recommend a plea agreement.
The suit seeks certification of a class of all indigent adults in the state facing noncapital criminal charges punishable by imprisonment. It also seeks a declaration that the plaintiffs and class have been denied due process, equal protection of the law and the right to counsel.
The suit requests an injunction prohibiting defendants from maintaining a public defender system that fails to provide constitutionally adequate representation. It also asks for a monitor to be appointed to supervise the public defense system until statewide reforms are implemented that fix the constitutional failures. The suit does not seek the release of prisoners awaiting trial or to overturn any criminal convictions, nor is it asking for monetary damages for the plaintiffs.
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