Until recently, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana—a Cajun enclave on the Gulf of Mexico—had 10 public defenders to represent poor people facing criminal charges. Now, after a round of layoffs, Natasha George is the only one. As The New York Times recently reported, George has little choice but to place most of her would-be clients on a wait list. Instead of the speedy and fair proceedings guaranteed by the Constitution, they have no way of knowing when their cases will be resolved. In New Orleans, which also suffers from a shortage of public defenders, a judge recently ordered the release of several defendants who have spent a year in jail awaiting the appointment of counsel. And in Baton Rouge, public defenders have threatened to begin refusing new cases this summer, if predicted budget shortfalls materialize. Throughout Louisiana, public defenders are operating in a state of crisis.
In some ways, the state’s indigent-defense emergency is unique and extreme. Louisiana has never had a robust public-defender system—in fact, it is the only state that attempts to fund this core government function largely through traffic tickets. And as the state struggles to recover from Bobby Jindal’s disastrous tenure as governor, this already rickety framework is now collapsing. But difficult conditions for public defenders are neither new nor limited to Louisiana. Throughout the United States, public defenders have used the word “crisis” for decades as shorthand for the combination of volatile funding, understaffing, and excessive per-lawyer caseloads that has persistently plagued many defender offices.
In my recent article in the Columbia Law Review, “What Gideon Did,” I examined the grassroots effects of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to state-provided counsel in criminal cases. For a number of structural reasons, state-level funding for Gideon’s implementation has proven unpredictable in the best of times, and susceptible to collapse in the worst of times, as defendants in Louisiana can attest. Given this history, Congress should step in to secure the Gideon guarantee with federal funding, so that defenders like Natasha George—and the poor people they serve—are not so vulnerable to the politics of state budgets.
A Chronic Crisis
Almost as soon as Gideon was decided, lawyers began to describe their working conditions as a “crisis.” While a few states, like California, had longstanding public-defender offices established decades before Gideon, lawyers in most states set out to establish and expand defender offices. However, the available funding never kept pace with the growing demand. These funding realities contrasted with defenders’ interpretation that Gideon required them to serve as many clients as possible—a noble aim, but one that quickly produced dissatisfaction in lawyers and clients alike, as defenders’ caseloads spiraled upwards. I found, for instance, that in Massachusetts, the state public-defender agency went from handling about 18,000 cases a year in 1968 to about 42,000 cases a year in 1972—a figure that would only continue to climb thereafter.