RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now to New Orleans where some defendants, especially poor people arrested for major crimes, are going without legal representation. Public defenders say there are not enough lawyer or enough money to handle the caseload so now there's a waiting list for felony suspects who can't afford their own warriors and a class-action lawsuit over the problem.
Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When you enter the lobby of the Orleans Public Defender's Office, expect a bit of a wait because receptionist Chastity Tillman will likely be busy on the phone.
CHASTITY TILLMAN: The jail calls. We get them every second.
ELLIOTT: This office handled 22,000 cases last year.
TILLMAN: Hi, this is Orleans Public Defender's Office. May help you?
ELLIOTT: Jailed suspects call to get their court dates and to see a lawyer.
TILLMAN: OK. I'm going to put in a request for a visit, OK? No problem. You have a good one.
ELLIOTT: But for those accused of the most serious crimes, there will be no visit from an attorney, no help in negotiating a bond, no investigation into their alleged offense. Orleans Deputy District Attorney Jee Park says there aren't enough lawyers to work new cases.
JEE PARK: And without that, there could be evidence that go missing. There could be videos that are erased or taped over. Witnesses' memories fade. So there are many unfortunate circumstances that can arise if you don't have an attorney who's working on your case right away from day one.
ELLIOTT: Park says there's now a waiting list for felony suspects who've been granted a court-appointed lawyer.
PARK: We know that we cannot accept those appointment and know that we're going to do ethical, constitutional representation.
ELLIOTT: What is their backup? If you guys can't represent them, who will?
PARK: That is a good question. We don't know what the backup is.
ELLIOTT: There is no backup, says Marjorie Esman with the ACLU of Louisiana.
MARJORIE ESMAN: People are going to be languishing in jail. It's going to backlog the court system for who knows how long until this can be resolved.
ELLIOTT: The ACLU has filed a class-action federal lawsuit on behalf of suspects who can't afford their own lawyers. Esman says they have a constitutional right to legal representation.
ESMAN: And that's why we have what's supposed to be a robust system of public defenders throughout this country - is to make sure that before the government can take away your liberty and lock you away, you have a lawyer to defend you.
ELLIOTT: Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country and also one of the highest rates of exonerations. Statewide, public defenders in about 12 districts say they don't have the resources to keep up and six have taken the extraordinary step that the Orleans Public Defender's Office has, putting some suspects on a waiting list for counsel. Esman says it's the state's responsibility to adequately fund public defense.
Louisiana's new governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, acknowledges the public defender overload. But he says there's no plan for more funding with the state facing a $1.9 billion budget shortfall.
JOHN BEL EDWARDS: There's more budgetary pressure than we've ever had in the history of the state. We are committed to trying to make sure that public defenders are adequately funded so that we don't get to the place where, perhaps, the Supreme Court would step in and talk about inadequate defense and what that might do to our criminal justice system. We certainly - we need to avoid that.
ELLIOTT: The crisis point is near, warns state public defender James Dixon.
JAMES DIXON: We're not the only agency in trouble, clearly, but now we're in federal court, which has always been my fear. If the feds fix it, it won't be gentle. I'd rather we fix this. This is something the state should fix.
ELLIOTT: Dixon says what's broken is the way Louisiana pays for public defense. Much of the funding comes from local traffic tickets and court costs, an unstable source. When receipts are down, public defenders lay off lawyers, and caseloads creep up to constitutionally questionable levels.
Dixon says if the state doesn't make indigent defense of priority, a federal judge may soon force it to.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.
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