SADOW: Louisiana’s Public Defense Board Needs Reform Before Begging For Your Tax Dollars

It’s a new year, but the same two stories for the Louisiana Public Defense Board and the system it oversees: a need for additional resources, but also a failure of its districts to help themselves.

This year, dire warnings of system collapse came in front of a task force set up to review criminal justice changes that went into effect last year. About 57 percent of all indigent defense funding comes from local sources, which comes from a $45 fee assessed to those convicted and those who forfeit bonds, a $40 application fee, $2 of a $15 fee for every bond posted in a district, a cut of bond license proceeds paid by bailsmen, another bond forfeiture fee, partial reimbursement by clients, and any monies provided by grants or local governments.

In recent years, system representatives have stressed the precipitous loss of fees from a decline in writing traffic tickets that go to court. With a growing number of jurisdictions opting for diversion strategies that bypass courts, the $45 fee has shrunk as a source for funding. In the 41st District (Orleans Parish), for example, in the busiest jurisdiction in the state in less than a decade the number of such tickets has shrunk (through 2017) by almost three-quarters.

Again, using the 41st as an example, some other changes also seem likely to reduce potential local income. There, the city and judges have combined to reduce significantly the use of bail, and other districts may see some attenuation as well as a result of a suit alleging its use creates a conflict of interest precisely because its associated fees fund criminal justice operations.

That theme part of the testimony reflected, as a new addition to this year’s litany of woes that, supporters argue, should lead to a greater number of state taxpayer dollars allocated to indigent defense. One board member pointed out that the conviction fee presented a perverse incentive: public defenders earned revenue – the $45 charge – whenever they lost their cases.

An oddity to be sure, but irrelevant. It hardly seems likely that public defenders would tank their cases to pick up $45 a pop – especially as there is no guarantee the money can be collected from the guilty party.

But what the hearings didn’t seem to probe was the role that local districts had in doing their best to raise their own revenues, which has been an ongoing problem for years in some. A review of the most recent data confirms the past pattern – some districts make a good effort to collect the $40 application fee – which can be waived – and partial reimbursements, and others don’t. Again in 2018 when reviewing data from the ten largest districts, they ranged widely from the paltry 2.6 percent of the fees collected in the 41st to the 31.5 percent in the 22nd (St. Tammany Parish). And a large number of districts apparently do nothing to collect partial payments.

Asking for a significant increase in state taxpayer appropriations, contrary to what many connected to public defense argue, isn’t the answer. Changes in state law that more narrowly would prescribe diversion would reverse the decline in fees collected, but districts also have to help themselves by having judges adopt reasonable bonding requirements (as opposed to going overboard as has happened in Orleans) and work with public defenders to ensure the application fee is collected appropriately. Only until legislators see evidence of this happening and if a money crunch continues should taxpayers get hit up for more.

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