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Decrease in traffic fines puts financial squeeze on Louisiana public defenders

David Jacobs

The Center Square

Eighteen of 42 local public defender’s offices ran a deficit during the fiscal year that ended last summer, which the State Public Defender blames in part on fewer traffic tickets, according to a report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

The report is the latest sign that Louisiana’s practice of funding its criminal justice system largely with fines and fees, which has been criticized by activists, lawmakers and the federal courts, may not be sustainable.

Combined revenue for all public defenders during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018, was $54.8 million. Combined expenditures were $54.1 million.

The public defender in Orleans Parish ran the biggest deficit, spending $258,472 more than it took in, though it ended the year with a $1.3 million fund balance.

Most local funding is comprised of fees obtained on the local level when a defendant is convicted, pleads guilty, or chooses not to contest the charge. The bulk comes from traffic tickets, according to the State Public Defender.

After failed efforts to improve local funding through increasing the court costs per ticket, state funding is becoming a greater proportion of the overall district funding, accounting for more than half of the funding of 13 of the 42 district public defender offices, the state defender says. Traffic filings have decreased almost 45 percent since 2009, making districts more dependent on supplemental funds they receive from the state Public Defender Board.

Act 260, a state law passed as part of the 2017 criminal justice overhaul, was supposed to ensure fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful re-entry into society. But enforcement has been pushed back amid concerns about the impact on court funding.

In August, the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that criminal court judges in Orleans Parish have a conflict of interest when deciding whether defendants are too poor to pay the fines and fees that help fund the court’s expenses. The decision makes the state’s effort to find a more sustainable way to fund its court system more urgent, according to the co-chairman of the legislature’s Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding, which is trying to figure out how to implement Act 260.

Richard Pittman, the interim State Public Defender, last week told the commission that local fines and fees comprise about 57 percent of the total funding, though the proportion varies widely by district. He said the level of financial detail reported monthly to the state board also varies.

The commission is trying to determine the potential impact on the justice system of reducing certain fines and fees. Their work is made more difficult by the lack of detailed reporting by many of the organizations that collect and spend the money.