• Acadiana bureau
  • Published: Sep 6, 2009justears
  • Without additional funding, the Calcasieu Parish Public Defender Office may soon have to cease accepting cases, which would force the western Louisiana judicial district to appoint outside lawyers.

    “We may have to shut everything down here locally. That’s where we’re at,” said Mitch Bergeron, district public defender for the 14th Judicial District.

    The problem in Lake Charles is caseloads, with some of the attorneys juggling more than 400 felony cases, about three times higher than what national standards call for.

    “It’s just a matter of having too many cases and not enough attorneys to spread them around,” Bergeron said.

    The issue is one shared by many court systems across Louisiana and is unsettling news for a state that only two years ago passed legislation aimed at reforming the public defense system.

    On paper, Act 307 of the 2007 Regular Session created a uniform statewide system that gives poor defendants their constitutionally mandated right to effective counsel and provides for additional funding to indigent defense.

    The plan outlined by the legislation met or exceeded the American Bar Association’s 10 Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.

    Two years later, the state has an “excellent design of a very basic house,” said Walt Sanchez, a Lake Charles attorney and a former member of the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board.

    “But it has no walls because the money that is necessary to make that system work is simply not being provided,” he said.

    Public defense is a constitutional requirement laid out more than 40 years ago in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainright.

    “We need a strong indigent defense system to maintain the integrity of the process,” said District Attorney Phil Haney of the 16th Judicial District and president of the state District Attorneys Association board.

    Haney, a prosecutor, notes that “ineffective assistance of counsel” is one of the predominant arguments in appeals. Cases that are sent back to lower courts because of an ineffective defense increase costs and slow the court system.

    David Carroll, research director for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said improper representation can also lead to the wrong person being convicted.

    “We want trials that are fair, correct, swift and final,” Carroll said. “When they’re not, everybody loses because of increased costs and increased fears to public safety.”

    State office takes lead

    Jean Faria worked in public defense for about 25 years before becoming the first state public defender a little more than a year ago.

    Faria said her task is to create the system the state legislation outlined — one that offers uniform justice where all public defense attorneys have the time and resources to work their cases the same way private lawyers do.

    Faria estimated that in most districts, indigent defenders handle about 92 percent of the cases on court dockets, depending on the wealth of any given area. She said she thinks public defenders handled about 320,000 cases in 2008.

    Those numbers are estimates because there is no data to confirm the figures. Faria said the state Public Defender Office is compiling that information.

    Faria’s office requested $46 million in funding from the state to help local jurisdictions, but because of the budget crunch was given only $27.8 million.

    While some of the money will fund administrative costs, the majority will be sent to local jurisdictions. It will account for an average of 40 percent of local budgets. The remaining 60 percent will be generated locally, such as from traffic fines and court costs.

    State Sen. Danny Martiny, the Metairie Republican who authored the bill when he was a representative, said the state needs to develop a better funding mechanism.

    He said the bill simply created the mechanism for a uniform system that would comply with constitutional requirements. The issue of funding remains unanswered.

    State Sen. Lydia Jackson, a Democrat from Shreveport, was an advocate of the reform efforts. She says using traffic tickets for funding has always been unreliable and unpredictable.

    “You had a system that kind of jerked around,” she said. “If you didn’t have a major highway or a lot of tickets, then your individual district suffered tremendously.”

    A potential new problem has arisen because of photo-traffic enforcement programs such as Redflex Traffic Systems.

    Some of the money generated from the civil infractions is given to city governments, but most is returned to the company. None of the money is typically sent to public defender offices.

    Several offices are monitoring the issue to see what long-term effect it may have on jurisdictions.

    During the past year, Faria has assembled a staff and begun collecting data — a daunting challenge that involves culling numbers from the state’s 42 judicial districts, many operating under their own rules.

    Her office also is creating a database and training each district how to collect the data needed to document caseloads, how long cases take to clear the system and what it costs to provide representation.

    Faria said she hopes to have better insight by the end of next fiscal year. Depending on the figures, the data could go far in helping to secure additional future funding.

    Preliminarily, Faria said the $46 million initially sought will realistically have to be doubled.

    Faria said she believes the state is at least 10 to 15 years away from fully reaching what the legislation lays out.

    Her office, meanwhile, will continue searching for systems offering the most efficient yet highest quality representation.

    Whatever that system is, “it doesn’t matter to me as long as we have quality representation.”

    15th JDC Investigation

    The 15th JDC Public Defender Office — which covers Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes — employs 48 lawyers. All work on a contractual, part-time basis.

    Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue after a public defender in Vermilion Parish complained about heavy caseloads and a lack of access to investigators.

    The state Public Defender Board paid about $50,000 to have the National Legal Aid and Defender Association review the office in an effort to head off litigation.

    Some have called the review unnecessary, contending it is part of a larger effort to change how the 15th JDC operates. Gerald Block has been a public defender with the 15th JDC since 1983 and says the district is one of the finest.

    He said the caseload figures were based on faulty numbers, a result of each offense being given a separate docket number in Vermilion Parish. Block said he believes the review is part of a larger push to bring in a full-time system.

    Faria said people fear major changes that the statute simply does not allow.

    “We have state oversight, but we don’t control offices,” she said. “They are grandfathered in and are allowed to function the way they functioned before.”

    That will remain the case unless widespread problems in districts are found and no efforts are made to fix them.

    After the caseload issue was raised, David Balfour, the district public defender for the 15th JDC, said he hired more lawyers.

    That leaves the issue over investigations. Balfour allots $70,000 toward investigations, yet only $10,000 was spent last year.

    Defense investigators often re-interview witnesses and look for evidence to cast doubt on the prosecution’s version of a crime.

    Balfour said his lawyers serve as independent contractors and should know when investigations are necessary. He said investigations by the defense rarely change the outcome of a case.

    Balfour said he’d like to see more investigations, but at the same time, “I don’t want to spend money just to have numbers on a piece of paper that makes the people in Baton Rouge happy.”

    He said he has considered telling his staff that everyone has a minimum of three hours of investigation available to use in each case.

    A case reopens

    Legal representation is at the center of a class-action lawsuit in the 14th Judicial District in Calcasieu.

    The suit was first filed in 2004 on behalf of indigents and names the state as a defendant.

    The suit, which claims heavy caseloads, a grossly understaffed public defender office and a lack of funding deprives defendants of effective counsel, was placed on hold to give the state time to put its reform efforts into motion. The plaintiffs have reopened the case, claiming the problems haven’t improved.

    The plaintiffs want the state to provide a public defender program in the parish that complies with constitutional requirements.

    Faria said her office is monitoring the situation.

    Bergeron, the 14th Judicial District’s public defender, said his annual budget is about $2 million — including state funding.

    Bergeron said he realistically needs at least $3.5 million to hire another 15 to 20 attorneys to add to his staff of about 24. That would help him comply with constitutional guarantees, he said.

    “That’s more than just a warm body in the courtroom,” he said.

    The increased manpower would allow for attorneys who can actually talk with clients, look over cases, institute investigations and truly represent defendants, he said.

    His attorneys are juggling far more than the national guidelines — upward of 400 cases per day.

    “It’s that crazy,” he said.

    Public defender review to start

    Complaints spur hiring of analysts
  • Advocate Acadiana bureau
  • Published: Aug 6, 2009
  • LAFAYETTE — Representatives from a national nonprofit agency are expected to arrive in Lafayette next week to begin a review of the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office.

    The National Legal Aid and Defender Association will receive just under $50,000 to perform the review, under a contract finalized in June with the state Public Defender Board.

    The 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office includes offices in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.

    The association describes itself as an nonprofit advocate that helps to ensure men and women have equal access to justice.

    A team of about seven to 10 people from the association are expected to spend a week in the area.

    The evaluations are akin to management audits used in businesses. The entire process usually takes between 60 and 90 days and culminates in a report.

    One issue to be examined is whether caseloads are at a level that allows attorneys to deliver competent representation.

    This issue sparked a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union late last year.

    ACLU sent a letter to the state Public Defender Board complaining about the number of cases assigned to public defenders in Vermilion Parish and threatening litigation unless the matter was addressed.

    The ACLU tabled the complaint after David Balfour, chief public defender for the 15th Judicial District, hired additional defense attorneys to lower the caseloads.

    Frank Neuner Jr., chairman of the state Public Defender Board, said he believes hiring the association also helped to reassure the ACLU the board is taking the matter seriously.

    He said the board lacks the staff and resources to perform a similar review and hopes the association will issue a report that can help establish standards and guidelines, some of which could be implemented elsewhere in the state.

    FariaState Public Defender Jean Faria did not return a call for comment Wednesday, but she has in the past expressed interest in conducting similar reviews in all state public defender offices.

    Balfour has questioned whether the money could have been better spent.

    He said his office is still awaiting $350,000 in much-needed funding from the state Public Defender Board.

    “I don’t know, $50,000 (for the review) seems like a waste of money,” Balfour said, especially since there are other, more-pressing issues that need addressing in places like Lake Charles and Orleans Parish.

    The situation in Lake Charles led a group of attorneys to ask a judge to reopen a class-action lawsuit filed in September 2004 alleging deficiencies in the Calcasieu Parish public defense system.

    The case had been set aside after state legislators in 2007 passed Act 307, which sought to reform the state public defender system and created the state Public Defender Board.

    Funding also more than doubled, from around $12 million to about $28 million.

    Two years later, Mitch Bergeron, district public defender for the 14th Judicial District in Calcasieu Parish, said each public defender in his office has an average of 480 felony case files.

    The state standard is 200 per year and the national standard is 150, Bergeron said.

    The judge recently agreed to reopen the case.

    Neuner said the state board is monitoring the situation in Lake Charles and is watching the litigation.

    Neuner said the board hopes the report in Lafayette will “highlight some of those issues” and present them with a roadmap to move forward.