District Defender Cecelia "Beanie" Bonin speaks during Tuesday's Morgan City Council meeting. Bonin asked the council to support the office and tell legislators that the district defender's office cannot afford to any further cuts to its budget. (The Daily Review/Zachary Fitzgerald)
Public defender: Office can’t take any more cuts
Public defender budgets in Louisiana have barely enough money for district offices to function, and they cannot afford any further cuts this year, said the head of the 16th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office.
Cecelia “Beanie” Bonin, district defender for Louisiana’s 16th Judicial District, spoke during Tuesday’s Morgan City Council meeting.
Bonin asked city officials for their support to request that the state Legislature refrain from cutting public defender budgets any more this year. The 2017 regular session starts April 10.
The office represents people who have been charged with a crime, but cannot afford an attorney. The district serves St. Mary, St. Martin and Iberia parishes and includes city courts.
About 60 percent of defendants charged with crimes use a public defender in the district, Bonin said.
The district defender’s office gets its funding from state and local funds.
“Local funding is completely unstable, inconsistent,” Bonin said.
About a year ago, the office had a budget shortfall that put defendants who weren’t in jail on a wait list to receive representation and even left two St. Mary Parish murder suspects without representation for about a month.
The 2016 public defender budget was $1.7 million across all three parishes.
During the 2016 regular session, a bill passed the Legislature to give a $300,000 boost in funds to the 16th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office that it desperately needed, Bonin said.
Another bill passed during the 2016 session to ensure that Morgan City Court always has a public defender due to concerns over lack of funds on the district level.
Bonin’s office receives requests to handle roughly 9,000 cases each year. The district defender’s office employs 18 attorneys, and another eight or nine attorneys do contract work to handle cases with multiple defendants. Another 11 assistants help in the district.
Public defender attorneys receive many more cases than they can reasonably handle, Bonin said.
A statewide study found that Louisiana should have 1,769 full-time public defenders to adequately represent defendants, yet the state only has 363 full-time defenders.
Bonin also discussed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force report and recommendations. District Attorney Bo Duhe, Judge Lori Landry and state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, represent the 16th Judicial District on that task force.
“They are bringing to the Legislature ideas to change so that we cannot be the No. 1 in incarceration in the world because that’s what we are,” Bonin said.
Recommendations include ideas to stop jailing people who aren’t “a danger to society” and making other changes that will save the state money. Those savings will go toward programs that will help who are in jail, she said.
At the Tuesday council meeting, the council approved city participation in the Flex Net Pilot Program that provides remote reading of water and electric meters. The cost to the city is $6,000.
Aqua Metric is the company that will run the program over a six-month period. City officials plan to use 34 homes in Marquis Manor and 14 units across other areas of the city for the pilot program, Mayor Frank “Boo” Grizzaffi said.
Upon completion of the pilot program, the city leaders will then discuss the possibility of implementing remote meter reading for all of Morgan City at an estimated cost of $1.5 million, Grizzaffi said.
Additionally, the city council approved spending $5,000 to help keep Avoca Island Ferry in operation for at least another year. The agreement was made in conjunction with expenditures by the St. Mary Levee District, Terrebonne Parish Levee District, Avoca Inc., Avoca Island Duck Club and Cleco.
In other business, the council
—Approved the finance committee’s recommendation to allocate up to $20,000 from Lake End Park Building and Maintenance account to purchase felt and limestone for the Lake End Parkway area to make any necessary repairs at the extended stay section of the parkway.
—Accepted a resolution to declare April as Fair Housing Month.
—Approved a request to change the date of Porchfest at Lawrence Park to be held May 6.
—Approved an ordinance to declare surplus and sale of property.