From The Chairman
In 2007, the Legislature passed the Louisiana Public Defender Act. The Act passed with over 100 co-authors, reflecting both strong recognition of Louisiana's public defense crisis and broad commitment to improve fairness and accountability in Louisiana's courts. The Public Defender Act created the Louisiana Public Defender Board (LPDB), an executive branch agency that serves the public, supports practitioners and advocates for clients by carrying out the significant mandates of that legislation.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board and staff have the talent, diversity and commitment not only to improve the delivery of public defense services, but also to develop criminal justice policy that improves the entire criminal justice system and restores the public defense function as an equal and valued partner in the criminal justice system.
Louisiana's criminal justice system is an interdependent system - including prosecutors, law enforcement, judges, and the defense. In order to work efficiently and deliver accurate verdicts that protect public safety, all of its parts must be properly resourced. As it stands, the administration of criminal justice in Louisiana is like driving a three-wheeled car - we desperately need our fourth wheel.
For many years, the public defense system has been significantly under-funded. The most substantive study of Louisiana's public defender system, published in 2004, reported that the public defender system was so deficient, "it called into question the entire administration of criminal justice".
The structural reforms created by the Public Defender Act were a giant step in the right direction. The state public defender system is now better supervised and more accountable than it has ever been before. State funds are distributed more fairly, accurate caseload information is now available in all districts, an extensive training program is provided for defense attorneys in all corners of the state, collaborative efforts to maximize system efficiency are progressing in many districts, we are prepared to respond to criminal justice needs in times of emergency, juvenile defense is finally being recognized and supported as a specialized practice of law, and the quality of defense services are being elevated through development of performance standards and cross-district communication.
We still have a long way to go.
LPDB will continue to improve the accountability of the public defender system by making responsible and transparent funding decisions, and vigilantly supervising the use of tax dollars.
LPDB will support timely, competent representation to indigent clients by controlling defender caseload, providing training opportunities, increasing available resources to the field and ensuring compliance with performance standards that provide qualifying indigent defendants the same access to justice as defendants who retain private attorneys.
Ultimately, public defense reform means more than just defendants having a lawyer standing next to them in court. Public defense reform means that defenders have the resources to develop the prerequisite relationships with defendants which allow them to effectively advocate for their clients and serve their communities. When adequately resourced, public defenders are able to seek enduring solutions to their clients' legal issues. This commitment makes public defenders one of our community's most valuable assets. By providing high quality, holistic defense services, public defenders increase public safety and decrease criminal justice costs while supporting individuals and their families to become healthy members of our community.
I was introduced to the systemic issues facing the public defense system when Hurricane Katrina exposed the deep flaws in the criminal justice systems affected by that disaster. In 2005, I was President of the Louisiana State Bar Association. Through the perspective afforded from that position, I was able to see that Louisiana's public defense crisis was neither created by a hurricane nor isolated in a single region of the State. Across Louisiana, indigent defendants do not receive the right to counsel as it is guaranteed by the United States and Louisiana Constitutions. Across the state, public defenders handle overwhelming numbers of cases against much better resourced adversaries. Across the state, there is opportunity for improvements in the administration of criminal justice.
As an attorney, and the Chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, I am committed to elevating the professionalism and standards of the practice of law for indigent defendants - who cannot be denied timely, competent counsel simply because they are poor. As a Louisianan, I recognize our interdependence as a community. Our public defender system handled more than 250,000 cases last year. An adequately resourced public defender system does not mean a less safe community. On the contrary, an adequately resourced public defender system can improve public safety, save precious tax dollars and give indigent clients the best chance that their current contact with the criminal justice system will be their last.
Click HERE to read Mr. Neuner's full biography.