Public Defender’s Office may cut people, lawyer pay

Dealing with $130K shortfall this year

Dealing with a budget crunch, the St. Charles Parish Public Defender’s Office has put its 11 attorneys on notice of possible layoffs and salary cuts.

District Public Defender Vic Bradley Jr. said the move comes with a $138,000 deficit. Without cuts, Bradley projected the figure could easily surpass last fiscal year’s $392,596 budget shortfall.

“We can’t keep going that way,” he said. “We have to cut costs. We’re spending twice what we were taking in for the last couple of months.”

Bradley said it’s possible one lawyer will be cut and the others will take a pay cut. He recently notified them by letter that their contracts have been ended and pay will be renegotiated.

“The money is not just coming in,” he said. “The court costs are not there.”

Bradley blamed declining revenue, particularly from a $45 fee assessed on tickets such as those from speeding, DWIs and misdemeanors collected as part of court costs.

But he added the office also is weathering a funding crunch that’s being felt statewide. It wasn’t until last year that it went more than $300,000 in the red. Part of the hit was eased by $30,000 from the state Public Defender’s Office, a first for the local office, he said.

Also, the office incurred nearly $20,000 in additional expenses with cases that required outside assistance. One of them was the John Paul Devillier case where he was found guilty of shooting sheriff’s deputy Burt Hazeltine.

“We’re doing alright on the work,” Bradley said. “It’s just that we can’t keep paying the salaries that we have unless the money picks up again.”

As of 2016, the office handled 1,582 cases.

Bradley said his office had been faring better than others because of Interstate 10, U.S. 90 and U.S. 61 generating tickets.  Other offices are so financially strapped they can’t take new cases, blaming Louisiana’s user-pay system for indigent defense where roughly two-thirds of funding comes from local court fines and fees.

Sheriff Greg Champagne, whose office collects fines and court costs from traffic tickets and other criminal cases, said “Whatever budgetary problems the Public Defender Office is having are certainly not the fault of my office. We are writing as many, if not more, tickets than ever.”

Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson II said Bradley’s office is handling the cases.

“I am committed to helping to find ways that my office can work to improve the collection of outstanding fines and costs, which could have a direct, positive impact on the Public Defender’s Office revenue stream,” Chaisson said. “I have conveyed such to our local Public Defender’s Office chief and will be monitoring this situation very closely in the coming months.”

Public Defender Manina Debroker, who previously headed the office and helped establish the program, called the budget crunch “a systemic problem” with revenue because it’s fluid with the office operating on court costs.

“It should be addressed on a higher level so that the Public Defender’s office has a set revenue source, sort of like the DA,” Debroker said. “I think it’s a bigger problem than just revenue is down or tickets are down.”

According to Bradley, “It’s hard to budget what comes in on tickets and most of this office’s money comes from tickets.”


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