As the scales of the American criminal justice system continue to tilt against the interests of defendants, developments in Louisiana’s Orleans Parish threaten to pull us back to the days before Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court case that established the constitutional right of indigent defendants to court-appointed counsel.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Louisiana ACLU have filed a class-action suit against the Orleans Parish Public Defenders’ Office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board over the parish’s practice of placing defendants on waiting lists to receive legal counsel due to a shortage of public defenders.
“You’re helpless,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Reform Project. “Your legal defense erodes along with your constitutional rights. Specifically, named plaintiffs Douglas Brown, Leroy Shaw Jr. and Darwin Yarls Jr. assert that their Sixth Amendment right to counel has been violated. The plaintiffs cannot afford to hire attorneys and so rely upon the public defender’s office for legal representation.
“With every hour without an attorney, you may lose invaluable opportunities to build your defense,” explained Buskey. “You may also be forced into a crippling choice between waiting months for counsel or doing bail and plea negotiations yourself. The damage to your case can be irreparable.”
The public defender’s office initiated the waiting list because it lacks the money to pay its attorneys. Throughout Louisiana, public defender’s offices are funded by an unreliable system. “In Orleans Parish, as in the rest of Louisiana, funding for public defenders is…prone to crippling shortages,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “To pay for public defense, the state relies on the fines and fees collected from the public for traffic tickets and other convictions — a system that makes public defenders dependent on excessive policing and draconian sentencing that work against the people they defend.”
Further, Brandon Buskey, argues, “By relying on a ‘user-funded’ scheme to fund public defense, the state of Louisiana has put the Sixth Amendment in peril,” he said. “Repeated staff shortages, waiting lists, and other public defense crises have shown that conviction fees can’t provide steady or adequate funds to public defender offices. The state must meet its constitutional obligation to its people and invest in public defense.”
Buskey is correct to emphasize the constitutional significance of this case. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, and for all of us, it comes at a time when the rights of criminal defendants are not valued. The right to a trial by jury is now itself more a legal fiction than an operating principle. Instead, defendants are hustled through a process that holds out the choice either to plead to a lesser offense or face the threat of maximum sentences in a system that is stacked against them. That system begins with the public defender, who is almost always a young, overworked and underpaid attorney who has little time for any one client. Such attorneys naturally advise their clients to accept the state’s plea bargain with the result that many innocent men and women end up behind bars.
Source: wisconsingazette.com, ‘Class-action suit filed over shortage of public defenders, waiting list in Orleans Parish.’
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