Public defense office shrinks

Published 6:56 am Friday, May 13, 2016

The 22nd Judicial District, which includes Washington Parish, has lost three public defenders in the past months and will likely lose two more soon.

This means the office will go from 21 public defenders to possibly as few as 16. Public defense attorneys are available to people accused of felonies who cannot afford their own attorneys.

John Linder, the chief public defender and head of the office, said this reduction could affect a large number of Washington Parish residents who are accused of felonies.

Linder said his office represents between 80 and 85 percent of those accused of felonies in Washington Parish, and with fewer lawyers, some of those clients may face delays in the judicial process.

Linder explained that the delays don’t necessarily mean clients spent extra time in jail. He said he tries to get clients bonded out of jail, and then his office will just ask the court for continuations on a court date. But these delays aren’t ideal for victims or the allegedly guilty, In child abuse cases, court delays can also keep families apart longer than necessary.

Linder explained the first cuts to his staff came from cutting entirely the hiring of outside attorneys for child-in-need-of-care cases. In child abuse cases, when a child is removed from the home and put into foster care, an attorney from Linder’s office will represent the mother and Linder would hire an outside attorney to represent the father. This attorney, known as a conflict attorney, is necessary because sometimes one parent is guilty and another is not, and a judge would determine whether either parent is suitable to care for the child.

For now, however, Linder is not hiring any conflict attorneys and he has put the whole process on hold, meaning children could be in foster care longer than necessary.

“Unfortunately, the first cuts came at the expense of child-in-need-of-care cases,” he said.

Linder said the layoffs are due to cuts in his office’s budget. A year ago, the state provided his office with a budget of $1.14 million. Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed a budget of $478,000.

“That’s a 60-percent decrease,” Linder said. “The other thing is that the funding has never been sufficient to meet our needs. We’ve always operated under a deficit.”

Linder has led the public defender’s office for the last four years. He said that when he came into the position, the office had a surplus that is now gone.

“Because of the continuous shortfalls, I don’t have that right now,” he said.

There may come a day when Linder’s office will have to turn away clients. Linder said he doesn’t know when that may happen.

“Basically we had to kind of reorganize, which means people will be taking on more cases. Unfortunately we have to monitor that, because once we get to a certain point we have to refuse to take on new cases,” Linder said. “We’re still crunching the numbers and right now it looks like I can’t give you a date on when that would happen.”

Although the state provides part of his budget, it doesn’t provide everything. The majority of Linder’s budget — 52 percent — comes from court costs, police tickets and forfeited bonds.

“Our office gets $45 dollars for every guilty plea in the district,” he said. “That’s added on to the court costs of our clients.”

So, people too poor to pay for an attorney do sometimes end up paying for an attorney — if only in part. The irony isn’t lost on Linder.

“If our clients had money, they wouldn’t be our clients, but we’re asking them to fund our office through fines,” he said.

But even with the added workload and the slowdowns, Linder said his attorneys will remain committed to their clients and he doesn’t expect an uptick in guilty pleas as a way to simply clear up the backlog.

“No, not at all,” he said. “The attorneys we have working for us are committed to what we call a client-centered representation. I have some younger attorneys and some older attorneys and they work their butts off.”

While Linder said he understands his office is not alone in suffering due to deep cuts in state spending, he’s still hopeful.

“I’m an eternal optimist and I am hoping they come up with the money we need,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s been a long time coming and everyone’s talking about criminal justice, but the realization is finally coming that unless the public defender is an equal participant in it, it’s not going to work.

“We have to be fully funded to do our job. The district attorneys like to say that these clients don’t need a Cadillac defense, but I say, there’s no degrees of defense. There’s only justice and injustice. Which one do you want?”