Louisiana officials denied poor people their constitutional right to counsel by failing to establish an effective statewide public defense system. The SPLC and its allies filed suit in state court fix the broken system.
In 2016, 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 2016, Louisiana’s chief justice declared an “emergency shortfall” in public defense funding.
Louisiana was the only state in the country that relied primarily on court fees and fines to fund public defender services – including a fee assessed against convicted indigent defendants. The state Legislature supplemented local funding sources with state funds, but this discretionary allocation always fell far short of what was needed. The indigent defense system had been under fire for more than 50 years.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, 85 percent of people accused of a crime in Louisiana were indigent. Louisiana also had 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 comprised nearly 70 percent of the state prison population.
The U.S. and Louisiana constitutions guarantee the right to meaningful and effective counsel to anyone charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment. In Louisiana, system-wide defects prevent public defenders from satisfying these basic obligations. Most criminal defendants in the state received attorneys in name only.
Poor people often sat in jail for months before a public defender was appointed or took the case, according to the lawsuit. Without timely appointment of counsel, the poor were 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 were finally provided, public defenders were often so overwhelmed that they could do little more than recommend a plea agreement.
The plight of the public defender contrasted 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 sought certification of a class of all indigent adults in the state facing noncapital criminal charges punishable by imprisonment. It also sought a declaration that the plaintiffs and class have been denied due process, equal protection of the law and the right to counsel.
The suit requested an injunction prohibiting defendants from maintaining a public defender system that fails to provide constitutionally adequate representation. It also asked for a monitor to be appointed to supervise the public defense system until statewide reforms are implemented that fix the constitutional failures. The suit did not seek the release of prisoners awaiting trial or to overturn any criminal convictions, nor did it ask for monetary damages for the plaintiffs.
Co-counsel included 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.