Criminal justice reform in Louisiana remains incomplete

Criminal justice reform in Louisiana remains incomplete
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The Governor of Louisiana recently visited Capitol Hill bearing some sorely needed good news: Louisiana, the incarceration capital of the world, is earnestly working to drop that claim to fame.  While this is a welcome change for a state where nearly 100,000 people are incarcerated, on probation or parole annually, the integrity of the state’s criminal justice system itself — the very machine driving Louisianans into its prisons and jails — remains on life support.  

The vast majority of criminal defendants in Louisiana are too poor to hire their own attorneys, which means that in the vast majority of cases, there is no contest of facts and arguments.  While the U.S. Constitution clearly establishes a right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment, the reality is that Louisiana’s criminal justice system does not live up to this promise for indigent defendants.

Eighty-five percent of people accused of a crime in Louisiana are indigent, and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color.  This year, a federal district judge warned that that Louisiana “is failing miserably at upholding its obligation” to provide poor criminal defendants with assistance of counsel.  

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This is not just the opinion of one judge, but a statement backed up by facts.  The Louisiana Public Defender Board reported that more than a quarter of the state’s public defense offices have been forced into “restriction of services” due to “the fact that public defense in Louisiana has been persistently underfunded since its inception.”  According to that same report, Louisiana attorneys handling cases for poor defendants had, on average, double the annual caseload recommended by state.

The result of such a broken system is the incarceration of more poor people more often at a tremendous financial and human cost.  But instead of investing in the public defense system to help reduce the prison population, Louisiana has relied on money collected from poor defendants to fund public defender legal services.  The reform package that went into effect last month and that was championed by Governor Edwards on Capitol Hill last week does nothing to address this injustice.

Louisiana’s broken system is so offensive and unjust that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with partners including the Southern Poverty Law Center, brought a class-action lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state scheme of relying on poor defendants to fund public defender legal services.  While this litigation works its way through the courts, reformers in Louisiana should take another look at their criminal justice system, and specifically the treatment of indigent defendants.  

If Louisiana is to uphold a system of justice that is fundamentally fair, then the best facts and arguments must rise to the surface at every stage of a criminal proceeding.  This includes facts and arguments concerning whether a prosecution should be dismissed; whether an accused defendant should be detained before trial or released; and whether a convicted defendant should be sentenced to fines, incarceration, or punishments like loss of the right to vote and other collateral consequences that accompany criminal convictions.  But none of this can be achieved without a strong public defense system that ensures that, at every stage of a proceeding, there is rigorous defense.

As Attorney General Kennedy reasoned more than 55 years ago, the representation of indigent defendants “is not a problem of charity, but of justice.”  Justice cannot exist where the rich man and the poor man are not equal in the eyes of the law.  If Louisiana is to achieve true criminal justice reform, it can no longer operate a system that allows poverty to deprive its citizens of their liberty.  

Myesha Braden is the Director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination.