Louisiana’s Public Defenders Can’t Even Defend Themselves

Written by SK Ashby

The legacy of former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) has left the state's public defenders in a situation where they can't afford to defend everyone charged with a crime who needs court-appointed representation, but what's happening in New Orleans is even worse than that.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the New Orleans public defender's office because defendants aren't being granted their constitutional right to a defense, but the public defender's office can't even afford to represent itself.

New Orleans' chief defender, Derwyn Bunton, announced in January that his office would refuse certain felony cases where defendants faced lengthy sentences. With a shortage of attorneys qualified to provide competent defense for those cases, Bunton said, the office would focus instead on lesser felonies. [...]

The American Civil Liberties Union responded to Bunton's announcement by suing his office, alleging that the lack of legal representation violated indigent defendants' Sixth Amendment rights. Bunton said the Orleans Public Defender cannot afford to represent itself in the suit. Mark Surprenant of the Adams and Reese law firm has agreed to represent it for free.

If the state cannot afford to guarantee constitutional rights, it should stop charging so many goddamn people with low-level crimes. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world which has earned the state the unenviable distinction of being referred to as the "prison capital" of the world.

I've seen more than a few professional columnists dismiss Governor Edwards' threat to shut down the Louisiana football program because the state can't afford it, but the possibility should be taken very seriously. I say this as someone who watches a lot of football -- it feels absurd to even weigh a football program or any other extracurricular activity against basic constitutional rights. There is only one right choice to make if it comes to that and it doesn't involve pigskin.

This recognition that we have to pay for basic governance is long overdue in America but it doesn't feel like much of a silver lining. People's lives have been ruined.