Study: LA Has Far Fewer Public Defenders Than Needed

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Against a backdrop of litigation and recurring public debate over the system that provides legal assistance to the indigent, the American Bar Association has released a study concluding that Louisiana has far fewer public defenders than it needs to effectively represent poor people caught up in the criminal justice system.

         The study by the ABA and the Baton Rouge-based accounting and consulting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville says the state needs 1,769 full-time public defenders; it has the equivalent of about 360.

         The study was done on behalf of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. The ABA says it was funded by the nonprofit Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

         It concludes that the state public defense system currently has the capacity to handle 21 percent of the workload required to provide effective counsel.

         Postlethwaite & Netterville conducted three rounds of surveys of criminal defense attorneys — private and public. They were asked questions about how much time an attorney should spend on different types of criminal cases to provide effective counsel.

         The result was a workload analysis listing 10 types of criminal cases and the number of hours that should be put in per case. For example, a city or parish misdemeanor would require nearly eight hours. A high-level felony that could draw a life sentence would require more than 200.

         The firm estimated that there are 147,220 cases annually requiring nearly 3.7 million work hours per year. That would require 1,769 full time attorneys putting in 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. As of last Oct. 31, the Louisiana public defense system employed the equivalent of 363 when full- and part-time work was analyzed.

         The needs of the indigent defense system and the means of funding it have been a subject of debate in courts and legislative sessions for years.

         Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and two law firms sued the governor on behalf of 13 criminal defendants, saying say the public defender system denies effective representation to the poor. They are seeking class-action status to cover all the indigent defendants charged in non-capital crimes in Louisiana. Kristen Clarke, who heads the Lawyers' Committee, said as many as 20,000 defendants could be affected.

         That suit was filed in state court. Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit asking for a court-ordered remedy for problems in the Orleans Public Defenders office. The judge said the Legislature is "failing miserably" at upholding its obligation to provide defendants with competent lawyers, but said the federal court can't become the local courts' "overseer."

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill


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