Lawmakers to Search for New Ways to Fund Public Defense
BATON ROUGE – The $48 million Louisiana lawmakers recently appropriated for public defense is appreciated but not enough to ensure defendants get fair trials, officials said Monday.
The $45 dollar “conviction fee” public defenders rely on for much of their funding is unpredictable, making it hard to plan an accurate budget, and creates perverse incentives because defense attorneys essentially are paid to lose, they said. About three-quarters of the fees come from traffic tickets, so when people drive less or law enforcement officers give fewer tickets, funding dips.
Remy Starns, the state public defender, said he isn’t sure how much money is needed but called for a “reliable, recurring, sustainable, sufficient funding source.”
Starns is part of a study group the legislature created to figure out how to better fund the system that provides legal counsel for defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney. The American Bar Association in 2017 reported that while 1,769 fulltime public defenders were needed to provide “reasonably effective” counsel for the state’s average annual case load, only 363 were employed.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is scheduled next month to hear a case based on the ABA report that could lead to costly judgements against the state, said Jean Faria, a member of the state’s Public Defender Board.
“If that case comes down the way it’s come down in other state supreme courts, the cost is going to be astronomical,” she said.
Only three jurisdictions in the state get any funding from local governments, Starns said. But every district attorney gets local money, he said, and the funding disparity puts defendants at a disadvantage.
The study group, which met for the first time Monday, plans to review best practices and report recommendations to the legislature next year.
By David Jacobs of the Center Square