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Suit Accuses Louisiana Of Not Providing Lawyers To Poor

Due to lack of funding in Louisiana, there is a shortage of public defenders to represent those who can't afford their own representation. They are put on a waitlist, and a lawsuit has been filed that alleges the situation is unconstitutional.

One plaintiff in the lawsuit, Frederick Bell, was arrested after officers said they found drugs in his vehicle. He spoke with a public defender the day he was arrested for about five minutes.

"That was really just to tell me what I was charged with and how much my bond was," Bell told NPR.

A month later, Bell saw his public defender again at a court appearance. The lawyer then told him what he was being offered by prosecutors if he pleaded guilty.

"I hadn't spoken with anybody about what went down for them to even give me a plea deal," he said.

Bell did not take the plea deal and a trial date was set for April. A few weeks before, he had still not discussed his case with a public defender.

"I wish my attorney would at least get in touch with me or let me know what's going on," Bell said. "If they do have evidence or if they don't? But no word."

Bell, along with 12 others, is suing the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, and the state public defender board in a class action suit. The case is being handled by the Southern Poverty Center and claims that Louisiana's defense system violates both the federal and state constitutions, which guarantees the right to legal counsel for poor defendants.

Bell is out on bail, but not all plaintiffs in the case have that freedom while they await representation.

Michael Carter, 27, has been in jail for more than a year and a half waiting for a trial. He was arrested in 2015 for being a felon in possession of a gun and indecent behavior with a juvenile. It took three months from the time he was jailed before he met with a court-appointed lawyer at this arraignment, The Daily Beast reports.

“He hasn’t come to visit me once,” Carter said, adding that the attorney has not conducted interviews in his case or investigated the circumstances surrounding his charge.

“The public defender,” he said with a sigh, “they don’t do anything for you.”

In Louisiana, public defenders handle more than 80 percent of criminal cases, according to NPR. But the state does not have the budget to handle the caseload. This can be attributed to how the public defender's office is funded: some money is provided by the state but funding primarily comes from traffic tickets and local court costs. 

In 2016, the public defender in New Orleans stopped taking new felony cases, deciding to put people accused of serous crimes on a waitlist for representation. 

The state acknowledges the need for public defenders, but with a billion-dollar budget shortfall this fiscal year and next, its priorities must be considered.

"They're competing for state dollars with a lot of other needs that the state has at a time when we're going through a very tumultuous budget experience," Louisiana Administrative Commissioner Jay Dardenne said.

The lawsuit says budget problems shouldn't matter.

"The Constitution doesn't accept a budget deficit as a reason not to comply with the Constitution," Lisa Graybill with the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

"When you don't have adequate defense, when you don't have a zealous defense, you really are just running a mill for processing people into prison," she said.

The plaintiffs want Louisiana to create a court-appointed monitor to oversee statewide public defense until reforms are made to fix the system, The Daily Beast reports.

The case will be heard by a state judge and a decision made on whether Louisiana is treating its poor as the Constitution requires.

Sources: NPR, The Daily Beast / Photo credit: Alper Cugun/Flickr

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