Public defender’s office relies on speeding tickets for funding

One of four in Louisiana that does not get state funds

October 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

St. Charles Parish’s Public Defender’s Office is one of only few such offices in the state that does not receive state funding and relies solely on money collected from court costs associated with traffic tickets.

Those fees were recently raised from $35 to $40 by the state legislature in the last legislative session.

Vic Bradley, the district public defender, said that way of funding leads to issues in planning for the future

"The funny thing is in budgeting I can tell you what I am spending next year, but I can’t tell you what I’m bringing in," Bradley said.

Out of the 43 judicial districts in Louisiana, St. Charles Parish is one of four that does not receive state funding. Behind this is a state law that was passed eliminating state funding for public defender’s offices (OPDs) that have more than half in savings of what they spend each year.

"They try to put the money where they don’t have it," Bradley said. "Many places now are having to restrict services because the state doesn’t give them enough money every year to fund what is needed."

Bradley said there is one reason why the parish is able to save enough money to not qualify for the state funds.

"Because of the highway system," Bradley said. "Plenty of parishes don’t have interstates. We have Highway 90, Highway 61 and I-310."

With more traffic running through the parish, more speeding tickets are issued, which means more money for the OPD.

"I would say traffic tickets pay the largest percentage of it that’s mostly where we collect it from," Bradley said.

Bradley said while that setup works fine for St. Charles Parish, other parishes without major thoroughfares have a more difficult time collecting funds for their OPDs.

"Some of these parishes don’t have anything but parish roads going through them or some small state roads going through them. So you don’t have the traffic," Bradley said. "Some places don’t have any money at all. If they didn’t have state money they wouldn’t have anything."

For those OPDs that do not receive enough local funding, the state provides some resources. In some places that is still not enough.

"In some places they are just appointing lawyers to handle some cases because they don’t have enough public defenders to do it in some parishes. Orleans and Lake Charles are putting restrictive services in," Bradley said.

In addition, Bradley said the caseload in those areas is overwhelming for attorneys and calls into question their ability to provide a proper legal defense.

"Our lawyers are not overworked like they are in some places where they have 300 or 400 felony cases to work. That’s more than the American Bar Association says you can have," Bradley said. "We get around 160 or 170."

Bradley said in places where the number of cases exceeds ABA standards, those accused of crimes are not being given proper representation.

"Everybody needs a lawyer. I mean nobody should have to face the court without proper representation and that is what the law says – that if you have the chance to go to jail you the have the right to an attorney and if you can’t afford one then one has to be appointed to you," Bradley said.

The main problem, according to Bradley, is that much more money is devoted to prosecutors than to defense and in his opinion that makes it much more difficult to prove someone’s innocence.

Bradley’s office currently employs 11 attorneys, however, he contends that they do not have the same resources as the D.A.’s Office.

In an interview just after his retirement, longtime St. Charles parish District Attorney Harry Morel said the OPD has plenty of resources.

"It’s not as critical as they are saying," Morel said. "There are guys doing defense in criminal or murder cases death penalty cases. Defense attorneys making millions of dollars paid by the state."

Bradley disagrees with Morel’s assessment.

"You hear him talk about that, but let me tell you there is a big difference. They got the Sheriff’s Office to do their investigations," he said.

In contrast, only two fulltime investigators are employed by Bradley’s office to do field work for case research.

Although the assistant public defenders are allowed to supplement their income by working independently outside of public defense, Bradley contends that assistant district attorney’s are allowed to do the same.

"You can match up what the D.A. is paying and what we are paying and there is a big difference," Bradley said. "We don’t pay benefits, we don’t pay medical, we don’t pay retirement. Whatever salary you get also runs your office."

Bradley said although it is unfair that some taxes collected from St. Charles Parish residents go to fund other judicial district OPDs, he understands that those other areas may be more in need than St. Charles Parish.

"I think it is working well in St. Charles because we have the money. Wherever they don’t have the money it is a problem," Bradley said.

However, he would like to make one big change.

"I’d like to see them come in and put in retirement systems and benefits," Bradley said. "What would happen is you would keep them (assistant public defenders) longer, even though ours have been here a good while. Plenty of places they turn over once they get the experience then they go out on their own and make more money."

Bradley said that the state’s OPDs were lucky to get a rate increase last year, but that the state legislature will likely not be motivated to provide more funding for the OPDs, especially given the budget cuts and deficits the state has experienced in recent years.

"You are sitting in the legislature and money is tight anyway," Bradley said. "If you are taking money from somewhere else for lawyers to represent criminals, who people consider guilty, unless you are involved in having somebody needing a public defender, or something like that, they don’t worry about it."

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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