Louisiana Overhauls Public-Defender System

For years, Louisiana's public defender system was one of the worst in the country.

Horror stories were commonplace, with some people kept in prison for more than a year without ever seeing a lawyer.

Today — in part because of the impact of Hurricane Katrina — the system has gone through a dramatic series of reforms. Now indigent defense experts say Louisiana has created a national standard for other states to follow.

Nobody in Louisiana would have wished for Katrina. Certainly not Tulane Law Professor Pamela Metzger. But sitting in a New Orleans coffee shop two years after the storm, Metzger says in at least one way, the devastating storm was a very good thing.

"What Katrina did in terms of indigent defense was bring out the absolute best in everyone, in every piece of the criminal justice system," she says.

It only brought out the best in the criminal justice system because it exposed the very worst of it.

"People were going to jail having been told they had the right to an attorney and waiting three months to ever see that attorney," Metzger says. "Sometimes longer."

New Orleans funded its public defender's office with revenue from traffic tickets. When the city flooded, police stopped writing traffic tickets, so the public defender's office had to lay off almost all of its lawyers. Nobody knew where prisoners were, and no one claimed responsibility for them.

Metzger says if Katrina hit today, things would be totally different.

"Let's start with the basics," she says. "The public defenders in Orleans Parish know who their clients are. What that means is, were there to be an evacuation, there would be individual lawyers who had actual files on every client that the public defender represents. There would be no lost prisoners."

The changes are the result of one of the most comprehensive indigent defense overhauls in the country.

Louisiana's public defenders are independent now. They used to answer to judges.

Defense lawyers no longer get assigned to courtrooms. Instead, they get assigned to clients — meaning the same lawyer will represent the same defendant from the beginning to the end of the trial process.

Traffic tickets still make up part of the funding, but now there's also a separate state fund that's more reliable.

"They recognized they had a problem, they addressed it, they fixed it and that's something I just think is great," says David Carroll of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, who has worked with Louisiana for the last four years.

Some years ago, the American Bar Association put out a list of 10 principles for a successful indigent defense system. Carroll says Louisiana now hits 10 out of 10, even though it's among the poorest states in the country.

The only other state that has made a similar overhaul in the last few years is Montana. Carroll says Montana and Louisiana have something notable in common.

"Interestingly enough, in both states the final reform push in the legislature was handled by the Republicans," Carroll says.

Republicans generally have a reputation for opposing indigent defense reform. Carroll says the key to getting everybody on board was showing that a broken public defender's office makes the whole system less effective and wastes taxpayer dollars.

The Republican who handled Louisiana's bill in the state House is Rep. Danny Martiny.

"I'm not in any way considered to be a bleeding heart," Martiny says. "I'm not in any way considered to be a bleeding heart. In the same way, I'm not in anyway 'lock everybody up and put them away.'"

Martiny says he pulled everybody into a room — the prosecutors, the judges, the defenders — and insisted on hammering out a consensus solution.

"The problem is, the general public does not perceive the provision of indigent defense services as a right," Martiny says. "They think it's a perk the criminals get."

But by creating a bill that everyone agreed to, he was able to get an overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of reform. The tally in the state House was 100 to 1.

"Many of the people who supported the bill had a lot of courage to support an issue that generally won't get you re-elected," says Marta Schnabel, who recently served as head of the Louisiana Bar Association.

The issue, as Schnabel describes it: "We'd like you to spend a fair amount of money, millions of dollars, on providing lawyers for poor people who've allegedly committed crimes."

Now Louisiana is in the novel position of being ahead of most other states on indigent defense. And other states doing their own reforms treat Louisiana's example as innovative rather than notorious.

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