Public defense cuts are very concerning

Published 6:59 am Friday, May 13, 2016

On Monday this week, the New York Times published an editorial critical of the Louisiana death penalty. The editorial was based on a University of North Carolina analysis of death penalty cases in this state from 1976 to 2015, and the results of that study should be shocking to anyone.

The abstract from the paper sums up the problem neatly:

“Among 155 resolved death-sentence cases, there have been 127 reversals (of which nine were exonerations) and 28 executions. Since 2000, Louisiana has seen 50 reversals of previous death sentences, including seven exonerations, and only two executions. Not only are these reversal rates extremely high, but the racial discrepancies are shocking as well.

“Death sentences are imposed in 0.52 percent of cases with black male offenders and black male victims, but in 15.56 percent of cases with black male offenders and white female victims — 30 times more likely. No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed. The racial disparities even extend into the appeals process, where cases of killers of whites are clearly less likely to be reversed. No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752.”

What this shows is that the justice system in Louisiana is flawed and biased.

The research paper does not break down the rate of capital conviction between poor and wealthy defendants, but other studies have shown a clear correlation between money and not-guilty verdicts. Last year, a professor of sociology at Cornell published research showing that, in New York state, defendants who could not afford to hire their own attorney were twice as likely to get convicted by a jury compared to defendants who could afford an attorney. Of course, these are only the cases that end up before a judge. Many more cases that go through the public defender’s office end up with plea deals — quite possibly a symptom of overworked defenders.

But returning to the issue of capital punishment, while it’s not surprising that a wealthy defendant might have access to better defense counsel than someone who has no money, it is outrageous that an indigent client could find himself on death row in no small part because he is poor.

In today’s paper, we are reporting on further cuts to the public defender’s office for our judicial district. In the span of one year, the public defender that services Washington County could see about a quarter of the attorneys disappear, meaning the remaining attorneys will have even more work before them.

These cuts are part of statewide budget cuts, a response to state budget deficits, but the cuts are excising bone at this point. This state’s current system of public defense irreparably compromises justice, and that should be a concern to anyone who believes in a fair judiciary.

There are several ways to address the issue — reducing the penalties for non-violent criminal offenses would be a good start to reducing the workload — but the state must, at the end of the day, fully fund the public defender’s office. A district attorney’s office that gets its convictions based on quick and dirty plea deals or through courtroom mistakes on the part of an overburdened defense is hardly serving the community’s best interest. And when our public dollars aren’t serving the public’s best interest, then they’re being misspent.

Jesse Wright is the managing editor for The Daily News. You can email him at or call him at 985-732-2565, ext. 301.