Public defenders running deficits
BATON ROUGE, La. — Continuing to struggle to represent clients who can’t afford attorneys, nearly 70 percent of Louisiana’s public defenders offices ran deficits last year, forcing them to dip heavily into fund balances to keep operations afloat, state data show.
According to an annual report issued this week by the state legislative auditor’s office, 29 of the state’s 42 indigent defense offices spent more money than they received for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012.
The parishes with shortfalls used available fund balances as a “short-term solution that allowed the continuation of the public defense system during lean economic times. At the same time, this seriously depleted most of the local districts’ fund balances,” the report says. The combined expenditures for those offices were $54.1 million, but they only brought in $49.1 million in revenue, leaving a $5 million gap, the data show.
“This is similar to you dipping into your savings,” said Frank Neuner, chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. “Sooner or later the rubber will hit the road. That’s the critical issue we will face in the future.”
Calcasieu Parish, which operates one of Louisiana’s two full-time public defenders offices, reported the largest spending deficit, with $752,632. The 21st Judicial District — which includes Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes — followed with a $664,378 shortfall .
Districts with the smallest deficits included the 27th Judicial District in St. Landry Parish, with a $5,902 shortfall, and Grant Parish in the 35th District, with $6,780 in deficit spending.
Calcasieu’s financial problems have forced restrictions in services, with about 400 cases transferred back to judges to dole out pro bono to private attorneys. Four of the office’s six contract attorneys have been laid off, according to Calcasieu District Defender Jay Dixon.
“This past year, I was the problem child, but it’s spreading,” Dixon said. “More and more districts are running into what I ran into last year — serious financial shortages.”
Some public defenders say the financial shortfalls will worsen because of the way indigent defense services are funded.
“The bottom line is that it’s a flawed funding system,” Neuner said.
He said Louisiana is the only state that attempts to fund the majority of public defense services through a $45 court cost attached to traffic tickets . The rest of public defense funding comes from local or other sources, such as grants. Last year, according to Neuner, the state awarded $18.5 million while local parishes contributed $32.2 million for public defense.
But Neuner said the funding doesn’t reflect the demand for services or defender workload.
The public defender system has more than 120,000 cases pending statewide. Public defenders represented clients in more than 215,000 new cases last year, he said.
For the past three years, the state appropriation for indigent defense ranged from $9 million to $10 million, less than 80 percent of the minimum to provide services to the poor, Neuner said.
Because local funding must be used in the district in which it was generated, budgets vary for each public defender office. Most of the funding is controlled by police who write tickets and judges who collect the money.
Neuner said that last year in Calcasieu Parish, a drop-off in traffic tickets resulted in a $100,000 budget decrease.
Neuner said public defender offices in Catahoula, Concordia, Winn and Caldwell parishes have burned their fund balances to zero and are preparing to restrict services. He said that results in a waiting list for defense attorneys in capital cases.
A majority of the state’s public defender offices operate on a contract system in which the district defender and administrative personnel may be full-time, but the bulk of staff are contract employees who generally work other jobs. Parishes that operate full-time systems prohibit attorneys from handling private cases for compensation.