Public defender's office running on financial fumes

Public defender's office running on financial fumes

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The 19th Judicial District's Public Defender's Office will be running out of money, according to public defender Mike Mitchell.

Mitchell said he's been ringing the bell for years, alerting people this would happen.

"The revenue for the public defender's office steadily has been decreasing over the past few years," Mitchell said.

When people are arrested or facing any charges, but cannot afford their own lawyer, the public defender's office offers them a lawyer. Now though, people jailed may be behind bars even longer because trials could be delayed.

An audit released by an independent CPA into the Baton Rouge public defender's office said their costs have increased every year, so much so that for the past five years, they have had to dip into their rainy day fund, or reserve, as Mitchell calls it.

"Come the end of this fiscal year, we will no longer have those reserves," Mitchell said.

For their 2014 budget, the public defender office spent more than $5.1 million. Last year, their cost increased to $5.4 million.

In 2014, the rainy day fund only had $517,531 in it and they made some cuts. This year, all that's left in that rainy day acct is $309,043.

"We are going to end this year with a zero fund balance," Mitchell said.

Court costs and a portion of traffic tickets are what fund a big chunk of the public defenders office, but Mitchell said over the years, those numbers have slowly but surely been dwindling.

The public defender's office used to get $35 from each ticket. In 2012, that cost increased to $45.

In fact, since 2010, the office has collected the following amounts from traffic ticket fines.

Mitchell said last year, his office took on 20,000 cases with 39 attorneys. That's more than 500 cases per attorney.

So now, Mitchell said the office is looking at only accepting "cases of adult felons who are incarcerated." Meaning anyone with a misdemeanor or not in jail will be placed on a waiting list.

Mitchell said the public defender's office does not receive any funding from the East Baton Rouge City-Parish. It does get about $1.5 million from the state, but Mitchell said the state is considering a 66 percent cut due to the budget crisis.

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