There’s a constitutional crisis in Louisiana. Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a defense lawyer to anyone accused of a crime, public defenders in New Orleans and several other parishes recently started to refuse serious felony cases. They simply don’t have enough people to handle the workload, which includes nearly 10,000 misdemeanor and 8,000 felony cases a year in New Orleans alone. Some offices are closing their doors completely, citing a state budget crisis and falling revenue from the traffic tickets that largely fund the public defense system. Some defendants only get to meet with a lawyer for a few minutes before critical court hearings. They’re the lucky ones: Others are stuck in jail, waiting for a lawyer to take their case.
Most major politicians are now talking about reforming the criminal justice system. Hillary Clinton devoted the first major speech of her presidential campaign to mass incarceration; Bernie Sanders has said that by the end of his first term the United States would no longer imprison more people than any other country in the world. Many Republicans are talking about sentencing reform, too, though there’s plenty of waffling, and the GOP candidates themselves don’t seem to know what to say. But almost no one in the national spotlight is proposing remedies for the serious crisis facing public defenders and the people who rely on them.
The problem may be most acute in Louisiana, but it extends across the entire country. Just 1 percent of the $200 billion America spends each year on criminal justice goes toward public defenders, though most people who are charged with crimes can’t afford a lawyer on their own. Governments are spending about three times as much money trying to put people in jail as they are on keeping them out. In 2014, the Nashville public defender told a judge his office didn’t have the resources to handle death penalty cases; in 2013, a Florida court noted that the public defender’s workload had increased 29 percent, while his trial budget was cut by more than 12 percent. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits in several states, including Louisiana, arguing that local governments have abdicated their constitutional responsibility to provide counsel.