Public Defender's office to cut 14 from staff of 48 due to financial crisis

Public Defender's office to cut 14 from staff of 48 due to financial crisis
19th Judicial District Courthouse (Source: WAFB)
19th Judicial District Courthouse (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Funding for the Public Defender's Office for the 19th JDC has reached critical levels, forcing a total of 14 layoffs.

"This is my first time having to lay off anyone since I have been in office," said Michael Mitchell, Public Defender for the 19th JDC, since 1994.

Mitchell said six out of 10 total investigators will lose their job. In addition, they will lay off eight contracted attorneys who are charged with representing those who are unable to pay for legal services when there is more than one defendant in a case with the same charges.

"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.

Mitchell says his 2015-2016 budget that ends June 30, 2016 is short by $175,000. He said that money goes to pay salaries, which is why Friday was the last day for 14 people.

"It will cause some significant issues for the court. We're trying to figure out how we're going to handle that," said 19th JDC Judge Anthony Marabella.

Mitchell said cases will move slower through the court system & this will increase the case load for the remaining 31 public defenders. He says over time, anytime a public defender retires or moves for another job, they have not filled those positions due to their decreasing budget.

The office receives some funding from the state legislature, but a big portion of their funds come from traffic ticket fines. Over the past year, those fines have decreased, meaning less money for the office.

"What we have to do is have a more stable source and the more logical source is through the state legislature to adequately fund public defense," said Mitchell.

"Constitution requires indigent defendants to have representation. We have to follow the constitution. Money has to come from somewhere. We cannot not provide council for our indigent defendants. As a judge, I have to follow the law," said Judge Marabella.

In the meantime, Mitchell said some of the eight contracted attorneys will have to file motions to withdraw representation. He added some future defendants may have to ask private defense attorneys to work pro-bono, meaning for free.

Mitchell said he requested state funds a few months ago, but will not know until June how much, if any, his office will receive because that is when the state passes its budget. It's unclear right now whether those laid off Friday will be re-hired after the new fiscal year starts on July 1, 2016.

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