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Money, innovation can help repair indigent defense

One helpful aspect of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s executive budget is its increased emphasis on improving the quality of indigent defense. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal trials in the state involve indigent defense, and due to unstable funding sources the system has a tendency, despite the best efforts of many, to underperform and perhaps even take resources from the judicial and law enforcement systems.

This point got driven home February when a New Orleans judge threatened to free prisoners awaiting trial because the ravages of the hurricane disasters essentially had stopped any revenue from coming into his public defense system, paring public defender staff by sixth-sevenths, making adequate defense virtually impossible. Eventually, the state coughed up $500,000 in emergency funding to keep it going.

Blanco proposes doubling the amount of money going to the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board which distributes such funds. Historically, however, LIDAB’s District Assistance Fund has been weighed more towards smaller-populated districts. While this may help keep indigent defense operating in these areas, larger jurisdictions are where the majority of the state cases get heard and where unfortunately appears the staggering number of cases a public defender is expected to represent. Currently, LIDAB is reviewing its criteria to determine DAF funding disbursements.

By all means the Legislature should adopt the $20 million request, one of the few significant spending increases justifiable in Blanco’s budget. However, as LIDAB revises its DAF formula, it should try to get more money to where the most cases are, and Legislative oversight is appropriate here.

Some innovation may help. For example, looking at the state’s two public law schools (Louisiana State and Southern), about 60 graduates a year specializing in criminal law pass the state bar exam. What the state could do is initiate a program that would pay for in-state tuition (about $21,000 at Southern, $30,000 at LSU) for graduates who pass the bar and are willing to commit to three years working in a public defenders’ office. LIDAB could set up a competitive process where districts send in requests to have a public defender sent their way on bar passage, the numbers of which would depend on the number of students in this program. (Graduates failing to live up to their obligation would have to immediately pay back the pro-rated share of tuition.)

Even if this attracted 10 additional students, at least it would provide some additional public defender support. With LIDAB supplying their salaries at roughly $35,000 annually, an equal mix of LSU and Southern graduates and the same number in the pipeline would cost $605,000 annually. Not just the state but the students would benefit – it would give these students a chance to get a law degree that they might otherwise be unable to pursue due to lack of finances. And, assuming they wish to specialize in criminal law, there’s hardly a better practical experience to gain knowledge in the area than public defense.

If indigent defense is going to be done, it needs to be done correctly, and additional funding and policy changes should put this quest on the right track.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear jeff,
Glad to find you after all these years and your insightful observations about the latest poll on the governor's race. Such a low undecided vote this far out is unprecedented.
Beth Rickey