Louisiana Chief Justice warns of financial problems in public defender program

Louisiana Chief Justice warns of financial problems in public defender program

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Poor, indigent defendants could suffer as a result of financial woes within the state's public defender program, according to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana.

"It is our constitutional obligation to provide adequate representation," Chief Justice Bernette Johnson told lawmakers during a joint session of the Louisiana legislature Tuesday morning.

Public defenders represent approximately 85 percent of defendants in Louisiana. Public defenders are assigned to those charged who can't afford an attorney. Cases can be delayed, some for significant periods of time, if a judge decides that a defendant is not getting the required defense.

If those cases are not handled well, it could cost the state more in the long run, according to Johnson.

"Although this is not considered a cost-saving method, if we fail to provide adequate counsel at the outset, we will not be able to absorb the exorbitant costs associated with reversal and retrial of cases," she said.

The budget for public defenders is made up of a combination of traffic fines, court fees, and other state funding. Recently, income from traffic tickets has d ropped and the judiciary suffered cuts as a result of the recent special session.

As a result, nearly 33 of the state's 42 judicial districts have started providing reduced services. Nearly half of the offices could be insolvent in a matter of months, according to the judge.

Johnson also took on the state's mass incarceration issue, where Louisiana ranks top in the country.

"We lock up more people than Iran. Five times more than Iran, 13 times more than China, 20 times more than Germany. I guess it wouldn't matter except that it costs us money," Johnson said.

In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the state spent approximately $600 million on corrections, something which drew criticism from some House members.

"When you're spending more on incarcerating a person than educating a person, there's something wrong that," said Rep. John Bagneris, D-New Orleans.

The chief justice wants to see lesser offenders sent to programs like the state's drug court instead of locking them away. The program works as an alternative to prison and includes treatment and frequent, random drug testing.

Johnson said the state's drug court program has seen success in recent years. Of those graduating in 2012, approximately 10 percent were convicted again within the three years that followed.

"Since 2001, we've had 593 drug-free babies, and that's a tremendous cost. A whopping $148 million that we don't have to spend for medical expenses for babies born addicted," she told lawmakers.

Johnson also outlined a few ways to increase savings, including sending low-level, 17-year-old offenders through the juvenile court system instead of treating them as adults. A bill proposed in the Senate currently works to do just that.

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