Criminal Justice

Louisiana's PD system is so underfunded that tax lawyers and even a prosecutor handle defense work

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Funding for indigent defense is particularly unstable in Louisiana, where the system mostly depends on funds from traffic tickets and other locally generated revenue.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest of any state, and its public defender system is “on the brink of meltdown,” the Marshall Project reports in a story jointly published with the Guardian US.

In Caddo Parish, courts addressed a public defender wait list by appointing all the lawyers in town to represent neglected cases. “Anyone with a law license, a professional address in the parish, and a pulse” was placed on a list to handle criminal cases without pay, the Marshall Project reports in a second story. Those assigned cases included lawyers whose practices focused on real estate, personal injury, taxes and adoption.

In the 16th Judicial District, up to 50 defendants were convicted and sentenced at once. In the 20th Judicial District, one lawyer runs a defender’s office that handles more than 900 cases. In Winn Parish, a city prosecutor works half-time as a defender, “another makeshift and constitutionally questionable way of making do in the absence of funding,” according to the article.

One of the appointed lawyers in Caddo Parish was insurance attorney Ryan Goodwin, who was appointed to represent a teen facing possible life in prison for using a gun to steal a wallet and cellphone.

“I took generic criminal law and criminal procedure in law school, but that’s just two classes separating me from any person,” Goodwin tells the Marshall Project. “I wouldn’t want me representing me.” He asked a judge to take him off the case, but the judge refused. Goodwin’s client was sentenced to five years in prison after agreeing to testify against another defendant.

Caddo Parish received additional funds on July 1, but the money isn’t expected to last. Right now noncriminal lawyers aren’t being appointed to new cases, but they could be tapped again later this year.

In Winn Parish, J. Keith Gates tells the Marshall Project that there’s no conflict in his dual role as a city prosecutor and public defender, as long as he isn’t “prosecuting and defending at the same time.” He mostly handles minor cases as a city prosecutor, and more serious felonies as a public defender.

Judge Jacque Derr is satisfied with the arrangement. Gates will be handling the case of Kenneth Bratton, who was captured after a nine-day police manhunt. Bratton is facing charges of burglary, damage to property and trespassing. According to the article, Derr called Bratton “a one-man serial crime wave,” though Derr will be presiding in the case.

“Kenny’s got a lawyer,” Derr reportedly said. “So now we can convict him.”

Derr did not immediately respond to a phone call from the ABA Journal seeking comment on his statements.

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