Louisiana Public Defender Act
Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the nation. This statistic should be considered in the context of Louisiana's historic failure to provide adequate resources for its public defense function. Until 2007, Louisiana was the last remaining state to fund the majority of its constitutional obligation through court costs (a scheme that inspired the Washington Post to call it, 'the country's most bizarre'). More than 90% of all criminal defendants in Louisiana rely on a public defender, and are processed through a criminal justice system that is so overworked that trials are rare, attorney-client contact may not happen until months after arrest, local public defense systems experience high turnover and low morale, and wrongfully convicted people are being released after spending decades in prison.
A report on the public defense system in Louisiana in 2004 found a 'disparate system that fosters systemic ineffective assistance of counsel due primarily to inadequate funding and a lack of independence from undue political interference. When combined with the crushing caseloads public defenders are forced to carry, these factors prevent the state from securing justice for all, protecting the peace, and promoting the general welfare of its people. In fact, the indigent defense system is so broken, it calls into question the ability of the entire criminal justice system to dispense justice fairly and accurately.'
Until the passage of the Louisiana Public Defender Act (Act 307), public defense was carried out through a variety of delivery mechanisms with only superficial oversight by the state public defender agency. Many offices could not produce accurate caseload information, had limited access to investigative or expert witness resources, were unable to spend adequate time with their clients, and struggled to retain qualified, competent counsel. Most public defenders had no health insurance or retirement plan, were forced to pay for their own investigators, support staff, office space and overhead expenses out of inadequate flat fee contracts and handled workloads far in excess of reasonable expectations.
For several years, beginning in 2004 and principally under the leadership of Senator Lydia P. Jackson (D- Shreveport), a Louisiana Task Force on Indigent Defense Services reviewed the state's public defender system and made recommendations to the Louisiana Legislature. Amidst growing public concern, media attention, active litigation and the Task Force findings, the Louisiana State Bar Association Right to Counsel Committee facilitated the drafting of the Louisiana Public Defender Act. This process involved members of the defense, prosecution and judiciary, among others. The Louisiana Public Defender Act was championed in the Legislature by then Representative Daniel Martiny (R-Metairie).
In August 2007, the Louisiana Public Defender Act (Act 307) passed the Louisiana Legislature with 92 co-authors and a wide-sweeping plan to reform the public defense system. Most significantly, this legislation transferred the duties of the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board (LIDAB) to the Louisiana Public Defender Board (LPDB). The Louisiana Public Defender Act dissolved the 41 local indigent defense boards and transferred all supervisory responsibilities to LPDB.
LPDB is authorized to hire and train an executive staff; adopt, implement and enforce performance standards; require local defender offices to keep accurate caseload, personnel and financial data; ensure uniform quality of representation across all of Louisianàs 41 judicial districts; and, collectively advocate for increased resources for the public defense function.
From 1993-2004, there was almost no adjustment in the state appropriation for public defense. However, from 2004-2008, the Legislature increased the appropriation by more than 400%. Local districts still generate local revenue through surcharges on court costs, but more than half of total public defense funding is distributed through LPDB through General Appropriation from the State of Louisiana. This transition helps stabilize local public defender budgets and decrease their dependence on law enforcement to assess, collect and distribute fees.
The entirety of the Louisiana Public Defender Act (Act 307) can be viewed online at:
See In Defense of Public Access to Justice, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, March 2005, p 19