Regardless of whether executions are moving forward, Louisiana must provide a vigorous defense for people who face death sentences. Federal law requires robust legal services and extra scrutiny for capital crimes.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board outsources most of the state’s capital defense to five nonprofit organizations with attorneys who specialize in death penalty defense. Four of them – Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, Baton Rouge Capital Conflict, Inc. and the Capital Appeals Project – were among the top 10 most expensive legal contracts in all of state government in the last budget cycle, according to a state report on government contracts.
The $7.7 million spent last year covered initial trials, appeals and post-conviction legal challenges. It also includes approximately $195,000 for expert witnesses and extra funding to the public defender’s office in Jefferson Parish, which handles some of its own capital cases.
In 2022, there were only 18 open capital cases and two appeals across the state, but State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns said his office is also responsible for the representation of approximately two-thirds of the 62 people who are on death row. The outside attorneys also work on cases where the death penalty is initially a possibility but doesn’t end up on the table.
Starns said the state would do better to eliminate capital punishment and spend that money on other public defender needs.
On Monday, he asked legislators for an additional $5 million for more public defender offices around the state. He also wants to hire six social workers to help with juvenile defendants, who often have a difficult time communicating with their assigned attorneys.
Caddo, Lafayette and East Baton Rouge parishes also need more local staff attorneys, and the state should start offering all the lawyers who worked as public defenders health insurance and retirement benefits, Starns said. Some local governments cover the cost of health insurance and retirement for their public defenders, but those benefits aren’t offered in every part of the state, he said.
In the last budget cycle, the state spent $50.5 million on public defense, though one of its main sources of funding has fallen off a financial cliff. There’s been a drastic drop in the collection of traffic court fees across the state, which are used to pay for public defense. The number of traffic court filings went from 1.26 million in 2009 to just 475,335 in 2021, according to the state public defender’s most recent annual report. That means public defense is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year.
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