BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s public defenders asked state lawmakers Thursday for millions in stopgap aid to offset dollars they’ve lost to defend the poor because of court closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The defenders of indigent people who can’t afford their own lawyers pleaded their case for two hours in the House Appropriations Committee. They requested a $28 million increase in Louisiana’s $30 billion-plus operating budget for the financial year that begins July 1, even as the state grapples with shortfalls caused by the virus outbreak.
“We simply have no financial safety net in place,” said Lindsay Blouin, deputy chief public defender in East Baton Rouge Parish and president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Blouin said the public defense system is at risk of collapse and people could be released from jail because lawyers aren’t available to represent them in criminal cases, without intervention from the state.
“We need your help, or we will not survive,” he said.
While the state financing proposed for the indigent defense system in the upcoming year remains largely unchanged, other dollars the state’s 42 public defender offices use for their work have disappeared.
Louisiana’s indigent defense system, which has been criticized as underfunded for years, receives more than half its financing from a patchwork of court fines and fees. As courts shuttered for nearly three months amid the coronavirus outbreak, much of that money has dried up, public defenders told lawmakers.
“We understand that we’re in a fiscal crisis … but we can’t do our job without the funding to do it. Our job is constitutionally mandated,” said Meghan Garvey, a New Orleans public defender. “This is a serious crisis.”
Committee members were sympathetic, but it was unclear if they would steer more dollars to indigent defense, as they already are considering cuts to health care programs and public colleges because of the virus’s hit to state tax collections.
“I believe we have a problem,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican. “No one has a solution right now. So, I appreciate the challenge you face. I hope that we can work with you moving forward.”
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said without a functioning indigent defense system, violent criminals could be released because of inadequate legal representation.
“I just believe that we have to find a way,” Marcelle said. “It’s not just a grab for money.”
Rep. Raymond Crews, a Bossier Republican, expressed interest in coming up with some funding. But he questioned whether public defenders need the full $28 million, which is the total amount they collect annually in fines and fees. He said some of that money might come in.
“I don’t see how you’re not going to collect any of it,” Crews said, suggesting the indigent defense system work on a more specific figure of what dollars might be lost.
Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, and other lawmakers questioned if more dollars could be steered away from the Louisiana Public Defender Board and its program for defending death penalty cases and to local districts instead.
Blouin said that would only reshuffle the too few dollars available, not solve the problem.