Public Defenders

Louisiana's public defender system is understaffed by about 1,400 lawyers, ABA study finds

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The state public defender system in Louisiana is understaffed by 1,406 lawyers, according to an ABA study of their workloads.

The study (PDF) found that 1,769 full-time public defenders are needed to provide reasonably effective assistance of counsel in Louisiana, but the state only employs 363 full-time equivalent PDs. An ABA press release summarizes the findings.

Currently, the state has the capacity to handle 21 percent of the workload to provide indigent defense that complies with prevailing professional norms, the study concludes. The study was conducted by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the consulting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville.

Cuts in public defender budgets in Louisiana have led to lawsuits over inadequate funding, including a February class action that contends that the cash-starved system is violating the right to counsel of indigent defendants.

The new study uses the “Delphi method” to determine acceptable case levels. The method uses expert panels of public defenders and private defense lawyers to arrive at a consensus estimate of the time that should be spent on different types of cases.

Among the panel’s determinations: A lawyer should spend 21.99 hours working on a low-level felony case for reasonably effective assistance of counsel, while a lawyer should spend 200.67 hours on a felony carrying a sentence of life without parole.

ABA President Linda A. Klein of Atlanta commented on the study in the press release. “This study demonstrates beyond question that Louisiana public defenders are daily put in grave jeopardy of violating their professional responsibility to provide competent counsel,” Klein said.

“When this occurs, ABA policy and well-established legal principles support public defenders in assertively seeking relief from excessive workloads. Courts, in turn, should provide relief when excessive caseloads threaten to lead to representation lacking in quality or to the breach of professional obligations. To do otherwise not only harms individual defendants but our entire justice system,” she said.

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