Louisiana has always been a backward place for criminal justice, the only state in the union that funds its public defenders' office with conviction fees, leaving a public defender's office that averages $238 spent on each accused.
If you're poor and arrested in Louisiana, you will rot in jail for months or even years waiting for a trial which will be indifferently argued by a grossly overworked public defender. As a result, the majority of poor arrestees plead guilty, and 85% of those accused of crimes are poor. Black people in Louisiana are jailed at four times the rate of white people.
Now, a group of civil rights attorneys and pro-bono high-ticket corporate lawyers have launched a class action against the Louisiana system, arguing "that Louisiana has systematically denied poor people their constitutional right to criminal defense."
It got worse as crime boomed and tough on crime policies followed. Caseloads for public defenders jumped from 69,000 in 1986 to 114,000 by 1992. During that same period, funding fell from $157 to $99 per case. A 1992 report commissioned by the Louisiana Supreme Court was “on the verge of collapse.”
Now it’s finally happened. In each of the past six years, Louisiana’s average caseload per attorney has been more than twice—and as much as five times—Louisiana public defender standards (PDF). By 2014, public defenders collectively had a budget of just $50 million to provide representation in nearly 250,000 cases, or about $200 per case. Two years later, in the spring of 2016, districts were so overburdened that 33 out of 42 public defender offices across the state had began refusing to accept certain new clients.
It was around that time that lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP, and Jones Walker LLP jointly began building their case.
Louisiana Can’t Afford to Pay for Public Defenders, So Inmates Are Pleading Guilty [Jake Scobey-Thal/Daily Beast]