Bonnie Schmidt – Chair — Criminal.Justice@lwvofla.org
The priority of the Criminal Justice Committee for the two-year term will be to reduce incarceration rates in Louisiana through improved funding for the Louisiana Public Defender Office. In Louisiana, the well-known mass incarceration capital of the world, public defenders represent more than eight out of ten criminal defendants, but the funding of their offices is inherently unstable, with varying funding coming from the state and the rest coming from traffic tickets and court fees and fines. These offices are chronically underfunded. Now, the La. Public Defender Board, which receives, then allocates, funds for the whole indigent defense system, is faced with threats of draconian cuts by the Legislature, even up to 60% of their yearly budget. Even if the office escapes the worst proposed budget cuts, reductions in services under the current system are inevitable. Already, several district offices have come close to closing altogether or are maintaining minimal, inadequate staff to represent clients. By the end of July 2016, James Dixon, state public defender, expects that no less than 24 of the state’s 42 judicial districts will become insolvent and enter restriction of services. These districts include rural districts as well as major population centers such as Bossier Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, Jefferson Parish, Lafayette Parish, Orleans Parish, and St. Tammany Parish.
It’s estimated that there are hundreds of unconvicted, indigent people sitting in jails and prisons throughout the state right now without representation, waiting on counsel, their constitutional right.
The Criminal Justice Committee met in February to discuss the problems associated with the funding of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and public defender district offices. We have been considering the issue since John Lindner, the 22nd Judicial District Chief Defender, spoke to St. Tammany league members last November. Mr. Lindner told us that 70-75% of the criminal cases that come through St. Tammany Parish are handled by the public defenders office; in 2014 they handled 4400 cases with 12 attorneys—which averaged out to 7 minutes a case—and 46 of those cases were “life without parole.” In spite of this obvious and overwhelming need for the services of public defenders, Mr. Lindner said that by the end of the fiscal year their office would have less than $1,000 in the bank.
At that time we thought that any action that we could take would focus on our local district’s dire funding problems but over the next few months an avalanche of bad news about the increasingly desperate situation of underfunded public defender offices made us change our focus from local to statewide.
As a first step, Bonnie Schmidt sent a letter to all members of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee and Senate Judiciary C with our current positions on criminal justice reform and to advise them that we are preparing a new study on the role of the Public Defender Office in the Criminal Justice System for adoption at our 2017 Biennial Convention. To this end, a new study position is being prepared for initial submission in May for confirmation and feedback. It will be presented to the State Board meeting in November for statewide vote at our March 2017 convention.
We have also recently joined a LWV Gun Safety Coalition, chaired by Patti Bingham of the LWV of Florida, which holds monthly conference calls on the issue of gun violence prevention. They are gathering League members from around the country with the goal of forming a coalition among League members working on gun safety issues to raise awareness and develop safer gun legislation at the state level.