Louisiana’s Public Defender System is in Complete Crisis

 The Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions’ promise that anyone who cannot afford an attorney will be provided one without cost has become a myth.  Around the State, poor people charged with crimes, some minor and others serious, languish in jail without attorneys to represent them.  No attorneys visit these incarcerated indigent men and women, work on their cases, or investigate the charges against them.  

The system got to this point because, rather than being properly designed or funded to begin with, it tried to hoist the entire cost of indigent defense system on the poor themselves.  Public defender offices around the state were funded by the erratic and unstable revenue generated from traffic tickets and court costs.  In recent years, as these sources of revenues of sharply declined for a variety of reasons, these public defender offices find themselves unable to even begin discharging their constitutional and ethical duties.  Districts across the State have been forced to restrict their services to varying degrees, including some offices simply no longer having the money to provide an attorney for all people charged with a crime.  Gideon v. Wainwright’s promise of counsel for criminal defendants regardless of their means has been rendered utterly hollow in Louisiana.

The 16th District, which consists of St. Mary, St. Martin, and Iberia parishes, is one of the districts in disrepair.  Though census data shows that African-Americans comprise approximately 32% of the population, public defenders there estimate 80-85% of their clients are people of color.   Poor people of color, charged with crimes by law enforcement departments with sordid racial histories, now sit in cages and in chains, without attorneys, in all of the parishes. 

Marquez Hurst is one such individual.  Mr. Hurst has been incarcerated without an attorney for over four months.  The Public Defender Office has told the trial court now on five occasions that it simply does not have the money to provide Mr. Hurst a lawyer.

PJI represents Mr. Hurst on his habeas action to either finally give him a lawyer, or cease holding him in jail.  We brought a habeas action on Mr. Hurst’s behalf, which was denied in the trial court even though it is beyond dispute no attorney actually is enrolled or represents Mr. Hurst.  The reason: because the judge previously appointed the public defender’s office, even though they have told the court they are unable to represent Mr. Hurst or provide him a lawyer at this time.

Last week, PJI filed an interlocutory appeal in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals challenging this trial court’s decision.  Readers can see that briefing at the bottom of this post.

 

Louisiana’s Public Defender System is in Complete Crisis
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