The public defense system of Louisiana is on the brink of financial collapse.
A new assessment by the Louisiana public defender board, obtained by the Guardian, is warning that most of the state's district offices providing legal counsel to low-income people are set to cancel new cases or shut down completely by next summer.
The Guardian reports:
[B]y July of 2017, as many as 33 of the state’s 42 districts are likely to be so short of cash they will be forced to stop representing clients. Eleven of those districts may be forced to shut down by this October.
[....] The crisis is part of the wider financial malaise of Louisiana that sees the state struggling under a $1.6bn budget shortfall. In the 2017 annual budget proposed by the state’s new governor John Bel Edwards and approved last month by the legislature, the public defender service is dealt a crushing blow – 62% cuts that will slash state funding from $33m to under $13m.
Already the world's prison capital, the situation could consign tens of thousands of people to sit in jail indefinitely without representation.
"The system is on course to collapse by next summer—we will have no public defense system in any sense of the word. We are talking about the wholesale destruction of a public function," Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, told the Guardian.
State public defender James Dixon added, "This is an absolute injustice—that the poor will sit in jail without any representation just because they have no money."
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A spokesperson for the Orleans Parish office said defenders there had already turned away 39 cases, leaving 28 people in custody.
As Common Dreams previously reported, the ACLU of Louisiana and the ACLU national office in January filed a lawsuit against Orleans Parish and the public defender board for placing new clients on a wait list for representation.
"So long as you're on the public defender waiting list in New Orleans, you're helpless," Buskey said at the time. "Your legal defense erodes along with your constitutional rights."
He noted in a blog post that those who end up on the list are "most at risk in our justice system: usually poor, often a person of color, and facing severe sentences."
"[T]his is not a problem of the public defender’s making. It is the result of the state of Louisiana’s stubborn refusal to fund its public defender system adequately," he wrote.
Minors could be hit the hardest by the shortfall as public defenders are increasingly forced to prioritize the most serious charges. Dixon told the Guardian that most offices will stop taking on cases involving defendants under 18 on July 1.
"We will no longer be able adequately to represent the kids in this state," Dixon said, citing research which found that spending any time in custody exponentially increases the chance of minors returning to the system.
"If a child is charged with burglary or theft, they are going to go unrepresented, and that scares me," he said.