Gideon Alert: Legislative changes yet to take root in Louisiana's 15th judicial district (Lafayette)

BY David Carroll on Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 2:26 PM

On June 17th, 2010, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) released Effective Assistance of Counsel: Implementing the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007, a report concluding that the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007 (“Act 307”) has yet to take root in Louisiana’s 15th Judicial District (Acadia, Lafayette, and Vermilion Parishes).

The Louisiana legislature passed Act 307 on a bipartisan and overwhelming vote, with the expressed intent of ensuring that “all indigent criminal defendants who are eligible to have appointed counsel at public expense receive effective assistance of counsel at each critical stage of the proceeding” and “that the right to counsel is delivered by qualified and competent counsel in a manner that is fair and consistent throughout the state.”  Act 307 abolished local judiciary-controlled public defender boards in favor of a statewide independent board with regulatory authority to set and enforce a wide array of standards, including those related to: continuous representation; attorney qualifications; training; attorney performance; client contact; attorney supervision and evaluation; addressing client complaints; data collection and statistical reporting; conflict identification; and, appropriate salary and other compensation.

Contrary to the Legislature’s intent to impose oversight as a means of guaranteeing effective assistance of counsel, the indigent defense office of the 15th judicial district operates with little to no coordinated management.  Attorneys are paid a single flat fee to take an unlimited number of cases, creating a financial conflict between the right of the defendant to competent counsel and the attorney’s take home pay.  Indigent clients facing misdemeanor or traffic offenses carrying jail time may very well not receive counsel at all, despite the state and federal constitutional mandates that they be appointed an attorney.  Defendants are likely to be represented by as many as three or four different attorneys during the course of a single case – typically known as “horizontal representation” and universally decried by all national standards and Act 307. And, many of the attorneys carry excessive caseloads as defined by national standards, before factoring in their private caseloads.

The report applauds the Louisiana Legislature for its leadership in passing the comprehensive legislation but concludes that it is time for the Louisiana Public Defender Board to now use the powers given to it under Act 307, including: contracting with all district defenders; regionalizing services in limited areas (like Southwest Louisiana); requiring district defenders in more populated areas to work full-time; and, promulgating more specific standards.

Effective Assistance of Counsel is NLADA’s third report on the right to counsel in the state of Louisiana.  In 2004, NLADA released In Defense of Public Access to Justice, assessing the right to counsel in a single rural parish in Louisiana -- Avoyelles Parish -- to understand how public defense services were provided in non-urban jurisdictions.  This study put the problem on the map for Louisiana policymakers.  NLADA’s report on post-Katrina New Orleans, A Strategic Plan to Ensure Accountability & Protect Fairness in Louisiana’s Criminal Courts, released in September 2006, was the starting point for a legislative advisory group, under the leadership of Senator Danny Martiny, which eventually resulted in Act 307. 

Read The Advocate's exclusive newspaper story on the release.