BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – A class action claims a woefully inadequate public-defender system in Louisiana is the primary reason the state has the highest incarceration rate in the nation.
In a complaint filed Feb. 6., the 13 lead plaintiffs assert that under the current system, Louisiana’s poor are routinely denied effective and meaningful attorney representation during criminal trials and therefore, “do not stand ‘equal before the law.’”
Each of the plaintiffs is in jail and currently awaiting trial for crimes that could keep them behind bars for years if not decades.
All say they have a court-appointed public defender “but the representation they are receiving fails to meet minimum constitutional or professional ethical standards by any measure.”
The lawsuit says the plaintiffs have only met their attorneys in passing, and that even then, their attorneys failed to speak with them in any meaningful way about their cases. Many of plaintiffs do not even know the extent of the charges they face, the complaint says.
The lawsuit goes on to say these experiences “are not unique and are the product of the structural barriers to effective representation in Louisiana.”
The Louisiana public defender depends primarily on a “user-pay” system of local fines and fees, such as traffic tickets, for financial support.
The 42-page lawsuit calls the program “hopelessly underfunded,” “a systematic failure by any measure,” “on the verge of collapse,” “beyond the crisis stage,” and “abysmal.”
Eighty-five percent of people accused of a crime in Louisiana are indigent, according to statistics from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, that organization that brought the lawsuit along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Davis, Polk & Wardell LLP of New York, and Jones Walker LLP of New Orleans.
“The state’s failure to treat them equally under the law has sweeping ramifications,” Lawyers’ Committee said in a news release.
In addition to having the nation’s highest incarceration rate, Louisiana also has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest wrongful conviction rate nationwide.
The class claims many of these cases are the clear result of a lack of adequate funding for the program.
“No other state in the United States relies primarily on local court fees and fines to fund public defender services.”
In 2016, at least 33 of 42 public defender offices either stopped accepting cases altogether or placed prospective clients – most of them currently in jail – on a wait list for an extended time period.
Although a lack of funds affects the entire class, blacks pay the highest prices, the class action says.
While black people make up 32 percent of the population in Louisiana, they represent nearly 70 percent of the prison population.
A 2016 study of inmates in Orleans Parish Prison found that black men were 53 percent more likely than white men to stay in jail more than three days, and that they made up 86 percent of those held in jail for more than a year.
The same study found that black men were 50 percent more likely than white men to be arrested and black women were 55 percent more likely than white women to be arrested.
Similarly statistics exist for marijuana arrests. Between 2010 and 2015, 85 percent of people arrested for a marijuana offense in New Orleans were black, and of those charged with felony marijuana possession, 94 percent were black.
Although public defender shortages and discrepancies between rich and poor criminal defendants in New Orleans are startling, the class action says, they are not unique to the Big Easy.
“Public defenders in 42 judicial districts in Louisiana systematically fail to test the charges against their clients in a meaningful way,” the lawsuit says.
Plaintiff Michael Carter, 27, has been in jail since August 2015 on firearm and other charges, and faces up to 20 years in jail, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the year and a half he has been jailed, he has never received a visit from his attorney.
“My mother lost her home in the floods in Baton Rouge in August. It has been stressful to be behind bars with no way to contact my attorney or move my case along. My case keeps getting delayed. I shouldn’t be kept in the dark just because I don’t have the money to pay for an attorney,” Carter said in a statement provided by the SPLC.
“Our ability to succeed as a state is directly tied to changing the misperception that we don’t care about the poor or the rule of law in Louisiana,” Mark Cunningham, a senior partner with Jones Walker LLP, one of the filing attorneys, said in an emailed statement. “The first step to making that happen is to begin investing in our public defense system and the courts instead of continuing to turn a blind eye to injustice.”
The suit seeks certification of a class of all indigent adults in the state facing non-capital criminal charges punishable by imprisonment. It also seeks a declaration the plaintiffs and class have been denied due process, equal protection of the law and the right to counsel under the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions.
“The state of Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world, jailing more people per capita than any other state in the United States and more than most countries across the globe,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an emailed statement. “While incarcerating people at every turn, many for low-level, non-violent offenses, the state fails to meet its constitutional obligation to provide counsel to the poor. This suit seeks to bring long overdue relief to communities that have literally been left defenseless for far too long.”
The suit, filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, names as defendants Gov. John Bel Edwards and the current members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which is responsible for overseeing statewide legal services for the poor in criminal cases. It also names the state’s chief public defender, James Dixon.
Gov. Edward’s office did not reply to emailed requests for comment.