Public Health

Public defenders in this state are told to slash budgets as traffic-ticket funding plummets

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Public defenders in Louisiana face uncertainty over the future of their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts a big source of their funding: traffic tickets.

Eighteen out of 44 district public defender offices in the state are in danger of insolvency, the Washington Post reports. Some offices have already laid off staff and ended contracts with outside contractors that provide indigent defense.

One public defender who was laid off last month said he continues to work without pay. He has heard that the termination of contracts in other offices has left “thousands of clients incarcerated with no representation or point person,” he told the Washington Post.

About two-thirds of public defense money in the state comes from fines added to traffic tickets, although the percentage varies by office, the Washington Post explains. Prosecution offices don’t have the same problem because they are funded by state and parish budgets.

Fewer people are driving as a result of a state stay-at-home order, meaning fewer tickets are being issued. In addition, police have instructions to stop pulling people over for minor offenses, which also decreases ticket revenue.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board uses state funds to help fund public defender offices, along with nonprofits that provide defense in specialized cases, such as those involving the death penalty. But as the budget year draws to a close—it ends in June—public defender offices are particularly dependent on revenue from fees and fines.

The public defender board passed a resolution last week instructing public defense offices to make big budget cuts. “That created a lot of confusion,” the Washington Post reports, “with some chief defenders initially interpreting the resolution as a mandate for immediate staff cuts.”

Derwyn Bunton, the district defender for Orleans Parish or the chief public defender for the city of New Orleans, sees trouble ahead.

“We’ll be in a constitutional crisis from the moment we start cutting staff,” he told the Washington Post. “And it will continue until the stay-at-home order is revoked. We’ll be asked to do things we simply don’t have the staff to do. Constitutional rights will be at stake. And we’ll be at a legal standstill.”

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