Rising Tide: Louisiana Campaign for Equal Justice
Louisiana’s public defenders are overworked and underfunded. This is no surprise for the perennial world leading jurisdiction in both incarceration and exoneration rates per capita. Despite installing an admirable statewide structure with the Louisiana Public Defender Act in 2007, the present funding structure cannot meet the lofty standards and mandates established seven years ago. These levees are doing all they can to protect Louisianans’ Sixth Amendment rights against a flood of funding for our police, prosecution and prisons. The two year forecast shows that without reinforcement, public defender offices in at least 24 of Louisiana’s 42 judicial districts will go insolvent, including populous Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Bossier Parishes. Nothing short of legislative reform can prevent this insolvency, nor the years of expensive clean up necessary after every oil, gas and tax lawyer in Louisiana is called upon to handle criminal cases during the ensuing restriction of services. Something must be done. And soon.
We formed the Louisiana Campaign for Equal Justice through a grant from Open Society Foundations (OSF) to plan a campaign around funding reform for indigent defense in Louisiana. In April 2013, we set out on what was less a full-scale political operation than a thorough fact-finding mission. The dire lack of funding ensures each of Louisiana’s 42 district offices are underfunded, overworked and struggling to keep pace with their far better-funded counterparts in the criminal justice system. The devil always in the details, we had to learn about the conditions in each of the 42 offices.
On average, each jurisdictional office receives two-thirds of its funding through local court fees, mostly from motor violations. Besides there being no relationship between traffic infractions and public defense needs, there is an automatic disparity between “well-paved” jurisdictions boasting the interstate and rural parishes with little through traffic. Complicating matters further is the decrease in citations during elections or extreme weather, the decision of some sheriffs to divert resources away from traffic enforcement and the dependence on other agencies to remit these funds.
The year of travel and research revealed 42 districts with subtle variations of the same underlying problem: funding for public defense in Louisiana is unstable, unreliable and inadequate. What remained to be seen was if there existed a consensus on the potential solutions to warrant a viable reform movement.
This was not exactly a given. Louisiana, with its unique geography, diverse cultures and mixture of rural and urban, has no shortage of potential obstacles to building a unified coalition. Among myriad questions, we needed to know: Is the present funding system and its dependence on court fees merely not providing enough, or is it fundamentally flawed? Was the public defense community behind a reform movement? Were those outside the community receptive to a public defense reform movement? Was this even possible?
Eighteen months later, funding reform is feasible, as indicated by the award of a renewed grant from OSF and buy-in from allies across the state and of all political persuasions. Conservatives, liberals and moderates all agree on the central tenets of our campaign: public defenders uphold the Constitution and save taxpayer money. Business interests support us because mass incarceration translates into a diminished and more expensive labor force. Religious leaders are sympathetic because we are judged by our mercy. Judges are supportive because we ensure an efficient courtroom and many district attorneys understand the importance of getting the verdict right the first time.
In other words, our fact-finding mission is over. The Louisiana Campaign for Equal Justice is no longer testing the waters or reading the weather vane; we are stepping out to educate Louisiana’s citizens and elected leaders on why public defense matters. There is not much time remaining before Louisiana’s judicial districts face an unprecedented and expensive restriction of services. Thanks to OSF, we have the next year to launch the most engaging justice campaign Louisiana has seen in quite some time.
They say rising tides lift all boats. While that metaphor may be stretched on occasion, it is no exaggeration to say that our success in Louisiana can help movements in other jurisdictions, and vice versa. As such, we’ll gladly take Facebook likes, Twitter follows, newsletter subscriptions and any input or feedback from those in similar fights. More than anything, we encourage every defender of the defenseless to keep up the tireless fight and continue making this cause so rewarding to fight for.