By Kathleen Peppo of the LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – The Senate Judiciary B Committee advanced a resolution with bipartisan support to study improved ways to fund the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, brought the resolution to address the chronic funding issues facing the board.
The board also is facing drastic budget cuts due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“What I’ve decided to do is put together a board that can look at best practices across the country and look for a steadier funding stream so that we are able to help those individuals who find themselves in these situations,” Barrow said.
Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, the chairman of the committee, voiced his support for the resolution.
He said that the vast majority of defendants that come before the criminal justice system seek assistance from public defender boards, and the defenders are “woefully, woefully underfunded.”
Barrow noted that public defenders around the state are mostly funded by money from traffic tickets, which isn’t “a good funding mechanism” because the levels fluctuate.
Sen. Mike Reese, R-DeRidder, also spoke in support of the resolution.
Referring to the defender offices in different parishes, he said, “There are some that seem to have sufficient user generated fees in their districts. There are some that don’t have nearly sufficient user generated fees in their districts. There are some that have different caseloads per public defender than other districts have.”
He added that this lack of consistency stemming from the funding problems “desperately needs to be addressed.”
Dr. Tiffany Simpson of the Louisiana Public Defender Board said that about 200 attorneys across the state were affected by the court closures that resulted from the stay-at-home order. Some of those attorneys were furloughed, while other attorneys’ contracts were reduced. Some attorneys were let go entirely.
An earlier bill appropriated $7.3 million to the Public Defender Board.
Simpson said that the board expects that funding to relieve some of the pressure from the pandemic.
“Just like the state in general doesn’t really know what the long-term effects of COVID are going to be,” Simpson said, it is next to impossible to predict how the temporary closure of the state will affect the board in the long run.
Referring to another funding method, she said, “We expect that we’re going to continue to see reduced conviction user fees over time even as courts open back up.”
She noted that some attorneys have been rehired with the recent reopening of courts but not everyone could be.