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Report: Louisiana’s public defender system violates rights of the poor

The SPLC and allies asked a judge today to certify a lawsuit challenging Louisiana’s broken public defender system as a class action case – citing an expert report that describes how the state’s overburdened public defense system fails to protect indigent defendants’ constitutional right to counsel.

If granted class action status, rulings in the case would apply to the approximately 20,000 indigent defendants facing noncapital criminal charges in Louisiana, potentially reforming the failed system detailed in the report. The lawsuit would likely be the largest indigent defense case of its kind.

The findings, issued by a law professor with more than 40 years of experience in public defense, were filed with the motion for class certification in the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge Parish. The report notes that the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the state public defender – who, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards, are defendants in the lawsuit – consider the system to be in crisis.

“The report we filed today documents what indigent defendants across the state have long known: Louisiana’s public defender system is broken,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director.  “This failure has created a two-tiered justice system in Louisiana – one for those with the money for meaningful representation in court and another for the poor that simply churns them through the system without providing them the meaningful defense required by the Constitution.

“Louisiana’s public defense system is underfunded, unmonitored, and wholly inadequate,” Graybill said. “The failure of the system is a statewide problem, and it calls for a statewide remedy.”

The motion for class certification argues that Louisiana has allowed the system to languish for years under excessive caseloads and inadequate staffing – a description echoed in the report by public defense expert Robert Boruchowitz.

Boruchowitz’s report describes how heavy caseloads prevent public defenders from conducting adequate investigations and notes that defenders virtually never hire expert witnesses. The report also outlines how many people charged with crimes wait weeks – or even months – in jail before a public defender is appointed.

The result, according to the report, is a criminal justice system where judges, public defenders and prosecutors have become accustomed to a culture that violates the rights of indigent defendants.

Boruchowitz, a Seattle University School of Law professor, conducted and oversaw visits to nearly 20 of Louisiana’s parishes for the report. His conclusions are based on court observations, a review of records, and interviews with public defenders and other criminal justice stakeholders.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in February by the SPLC; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP.