Louisiana public defenders say they need millions more in funding

The chronically underfunded Louisiana public defenders will need at least $3.9 million more in funding than the $43 million Gov. John Bel Edwards has recommended giving them in the state’s next budget cycle, state public defender Remy Starns said Tuesday. 

The problem, once again, is connected to the way Louisiana pays its public defenders, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. 

The state relies, in part, on a $45 fee attached to criminal convictions to fund public defense. Convictions—and therefore collection of the $45 conviction fee—have dropped 22 percent from where those collections were before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Starns says. The drop in convictions mean fewer conviction fees for public defenders. 

Starns estimates that if convictions don’t pick up to at least pre-pandemic levels, the public defenders could end up as much as $5 million short of what they need to function. The money is needed to support 39 public defender offices working in Louisiana’s 42 state courts.  

Approximately three quarters of the public defenders’ conviction fees actually come from traffic tickets, Starns says. A relatively small portion of the revenue from the fee comes from criminal convictions that are handed down in court—in part because people who are convicted of crimes and sent to prison often can’t afford to pay their fees. So those fees aren’t collected. 

In 2020, when traffic stops almost ground to a halt during the COVID-19 lockdown, public defenders also faced a budget crisis. The Louisiana Legislature ended up diverting an additional $7 million to public defenders to help them get through the end of the budget cycle in June. 

“We could not have made it through the fiscal year without it,” Starns says. 

But relying on traffic tickets to fund a substantial portion of the public defenders’ budget was problematic long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The state public defender board has consistently complained over the years that the traffic ticket funding is unstable. Read the full story.