Louisiana's Public Defender System is Broken

May 5, 2017

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Louisiana's public defender system is so overburdened that it fails to meet the constitutional right to counsel for indigent defendants, according to an extensive report compiled by Professor from Practice Robert C. Boruchowitz.

Robert C. Boruchowitz testifying in January, 2016
Robert C. Boruchowitz

Based on the findings from Professor Boruchowitz's report, the Southern Poverty Law Center has asked a judge to certify a class action lawsuit challenging the state's broken public defense system. If granted class action status, rulings in the case would apply to the approximately 20,000 indigent defendants facing noncapital criminal charges in Louisiana, potentially reforming the failed system.

The lawsuit would likely be the largest indigent defense case of its kind.

Boruchowitz's 108-page report describes how heavy caseloads prevent public defenders from conducting adequate investigations and notes that defenders virtually never hire expert witnesses. The report also outlines how many people charged with crimes wait weeks — or even months — in jail before a public defender is appointed.

Boruchowitz, who has more than 40 years of experience in public defense, leads The Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law. His expertise in the field of public defense is nationally recognized, and he has worked on reports for multiple other advocacy organizations, including The Sixth Amendment Center and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

For the Louisiana case, Boruchowitz conducted and oversaw visits to nearly 20 of Louisiana's parishes. His conclusions are based on court observations, a review of records, and interviews with public defenders and other criminal justice stakeholders.

"The situation in Louisiana has grown to be so serious that the defenders and judges have come to accept routinely and openly a pattern of practice regarding indigent accused persons that falls well below what the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct require and effectively disregards the ethical responsibilities of both lawyers and judges," Boruchowitz wrote in the report.

The findings were filed with the motion for class certification in the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge Parish. The report notes that the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the state public defender — who, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards, are defendants in the lawsuit — consider the system to be in crisis.

"The report we filed today documents what indigent defendants across the state have long known: Louisiana's public defender system is broken," said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. "This failure has created a two-tiered justice system in Louisiana — one for those with the money for meaningful representation in court and another for the poor that simply churns them through the system without providing them the meaningful defense required by the Constitution.

The motion for class certification argues that Louisiana has allowed the system to languish for years under excessive caseloads and inadequate staffing.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in February by the SPLC; the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP.

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