The attorney who heads the Caddo Parish Public Defenders Office says the system which funds her office is broken.
“It’s almost like playing Whack-A-Mole trying to figure out how to do the budget,” said Caddo Parish District Public Defender Pamela Smart.
For the better part of three years Smart says her office has been operating without knowing if they’ll make budget each quarter.
It’s because Louisiana is the only state in the country which tries to fund a majority of indigent public defense through court fees and fines assessed on traffic tickets.
“So we’re getting a fee from indigent clients, who can’t afford an attorney to start with, to run our office,” said Smart.
Smart says the money accounts for two-thirds of the Public Defenders budget statewide.
It’s not consistent money. Her budget waivers.
One fiscal year, she says she started with a day-and-half of reserve funds in the books. For months they operated on a day-to-day basis.
“At some point, it’s just going to cave in,” said Smart.
She’s not the only one sharing this opinion.
So too does one of the men who helped set up the funding system in the first place.
David Carrol heads the Sixth Amendment Center, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are upheld in court all throughout the country. He’s a nationally recognized expert on the right to legal counsel.
More than a decade ago, with support from the Louisiana legislature, Carrol helped set up the current Louisiana Public Defender Board.
He says they knew back then they were kicking the funding can down the road.
“I just didn’t think it would be 10 years later and we would still be talking about the same issues,” said Carrol.
Carrol gave an example of why he feels the system is flawed.
He says if statewide law enforcement decided to focus on tackling the opioid epidemic and back off traffic ticket enforcement, Smart’s office would badly suffer.
According to Carrol’s example, at the same time the need for legal representation from Smart’s office would potentially increase, due to arrests, while her funding would potentially decrease, due to the lack of traffic tickets being issued.
” I’m not saying it’s wrong or incorrect for law enforcement to make those choices,” said Carrol. “They should be making those choices. It just shouldn’t have any connection to the funding of indigent defense services.”
As he sees it, the office is unsustainable.
“There’s no way that they are going to be able to provide effective indigent defense services as is the state’s constitutional obligation, trying to do it based on fees assessed on traffic tickets,” said Carrol.
That leaves the Louisiana Legislature to fund the office further, or not.
State Senator Greg Tarver is one of 15 members who sit on the Senate Finance Committee, which appropriates state funds.
He says he feels for Smart, but public defense does not take precedence.
“You have to decide your priorities and I can tell you my priorities are the elderly, children and the needy. They come below that,” said Tarver. “It’s very hard because they deserve representation like everybody else. But at the same time, you have to make a decision.”
But Smart says the accused not being defended properly on the front end ultimately costs tax payers on the back end.
“If you don’t [fund the office], they’re going to get out for ineffective assistance of council,” said Smart. “It can drag it on and on for a victims family too. ”
Tarver does not disagree.
“She’s right. She’s not wrong. She’s 100% correct,” said Tarver. “But we only have a limited amount of money.”
Carrol says several states are choosing to pay now for public defense rather than later.
“There’s been a lot of movement in particularly conservative states across the country. So we’ve seen Idaho, Utah and Michigan in recent years all realizing that you need to have a steady flow of resources,” said Carrol.
Smart sees it this way.
“People don’t want to fund public defense, but I mean we are a necessary evil,” she said.