One of the essential, most significant rights we have as Americans is the right to an attorney—as our Miranda rights state, if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Louisiana has decided to forsake this.
As the Huffington Post notes, “Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, no longer provides public defenders to all its people accused of crimes; within months over half its public defender offices are expected to become insolvent.”
Of the 42 public defender offices, 24 will be insolvent within the next year. A measly 2 percent of the state’s $3.5 billion budget, which covers police, prosecutors, courts and jails, is used to fund public defenders.
The ACLU is suing the Orleans Parish public defenders' office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board because of this. The shortage of public defenders has caused a number of individuals to be placed on waiting lists or simply denied representation—in particular, the Public Defender’s office has said they will refuse defendants facing "lengthy or life sentences.”
These are the people who require legal representation the most, and our justice system has entirely abandoned them.
The root cause of this epidemic is budget cuts under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reign. Due to his unprecedented tax cuts and a refusal to raise taxes, all state departments are suffering, and the state is facing a $1 billion deficit after his departure; Jindal has gutted the state of its fundamental resources.
James Dixon, the chief Louisiana Public Defender, put it simply: “It's a nightmare. You have people in jail that don't have lawyers. It's that basic."
Numerous problems already exist within America’s broken justice system, but to eliminate one of its underlying tenets is criminal. The solution is difficult, considering the lack of funds, but Gawker points to John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor, for some ideas:
3. A $4B fed grant—a rounding error in a $1.5T discretionary budget (0.3%)—would TRIPLE indigent defense budgets nationwide. But silence.— John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff) March 8, 2016
One thing is for certain: defendants cannot continue to be prosecuted without representation in Louisiana.
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