Skip to main content Accessibility

SPLC, allies file lawsuit over Louisiana's broken public defender system

Louisiana officials are denying poor people their constitutional right to counsel by failing to establish an effective statewide public defense system, according to a lawsuit filed today by the SPLC and its allies.

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.

“State officials and politicians have looked the other way as the system has fallen further into crisis,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at the SPLC. “They’ve had the chance to fix it and they have failed, time and again. The operation of a two-tiered system of justice degrades our state, violates our state and federal constitutions and simply cannot continue. We have asked the court to intervene because the poor in this state can wait no longer for justice.”

The suit, filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, names as defendants Gov. John Bel Edwards and the current members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. It also names the state’s chief public defender, who is charged with administering public defense across the state.

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.

Plaintiff Michael Carter, 27, has been in jail since August 2015 for firearm and other charges. He faces up to 20 years in jail. In the year-and-a-half he has been jailed, he has never received a visit from his attorney and has been kept in a jail three hours from Baton Rouge, where his family lives.

“It has been stressful to be behind bars with no way to contact my attorney or move my case along,” he said. “My case keeps getting delayed. I shouldn’t be kept in the dark just because I don’t have the money to pay for an attorney.”

The plight of the public defender system – and plaintiffs such as Carter – contrasts greatly with the state’s district attorney offices. In Lafourche Parish, the public defender reported almost $826,000 in funding for 2014. The district attorney received $3.5 million and reported a budget surplus of $500,000 at the end of the year, according to the lawsuit. The public defender’s office, by comparison, was several thousand dollars in debt at year’s end.

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.

“In just the last year, we have seen Louisiana’s refusal to address the catastrophic failings of its indigent defense system result in the near-closing of defender offices, the laying off of staff and the indefinite detention of poor people awaiting the assignment of an attorney,” the SPLC’s Graybill said. “All Louisianans, regardless of income, have the right to the assistance of an attorney if they face the loss of liberty.”

In addition to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP.

Economic consulting firms NERA Economic Consulting and Charles Rivers Associates provided pro bono support for the legal team.