Price of Justice: Indigent Defense

Mar 10, 2017

“…You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense…”

Thanks to movies and TV, we’re all familiar with those words from the Miranda warning.

“Public defenders are the only criminal justice institution required by the U.S. Constitution,” says Harry Fontenot, head of the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders’ Office. “You have a right to a defense. That’s what the framers intended.”

Fontenot is hoping upcoming legislative efforts to reduce Louisiana’s incarceration rate will include providing more equitable funding for public defenders.

“We should have parity like the D.A. If the D.A. gets a dollar, we get a dollar,” he says. “The Legislature is charged with funding us, but they have punted. We get funded on traffic tickets.”

A class action suit, filed last month in state district court, is seeking to have that funding mechanism declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, 33 of the state’s 42 public defender offices are turning away clients due to lack of resources.

Fontenot says that’s adding to the rate of incarceration in Louisiana – now and later.

“We can’t get to everybody in the time that we should,” he explains. “A lot of these people will sit in jail for months on end, and when they come to court they will plead to anything to get out. A lot of these people are not guilty, and they’re still pleading. That’s not fair.”

Those who work as public defenders aren’t the only ones impacted by the funding crisis. The Louisiana Bar Association as a whole is also urging improved funding for public defense. 

“When indigent defender offices can’t provide representation to people charged with crimes, the judges begin appointing individual lawyers to represent those people – maybe bankruptcy lawyers, divorce lawyers,” Bar Association president Darrel Papillon told the Justice Reinvestment Task Force last week. “I don’t believe that’s fair to that defendant.”

That task force, charged with making criminal justice reform recommendations aimed at reducing the incarceration rate, had not been including the issue of funding for public defenders in their deliberations. We’ll see if they do when they adopt their final report next week.