ABBEVILLE, La. -- It was arraignment morning at the Vermilion Parish courthouse, the monthly catalog of bad decisions, hot tempers, hard hearts and hard luck. Natasha George, who until recently was one of 10 lawyers defending the poor of the parish, stood before the full gallery of defendants.
"I'm the public defender in Vermilion Parish, right now the only public defender," she said. "Due to a lack of funding for our district and our office, today we will be taking applications for our service but you will be put on a wait list." Over the next hour, a steady stream of people left the courthouse and headed out into the rain, nearly all holding a sheet of paper explaining that as the poor and accused of Vermilion Parish they were, for now, on their own.
"This will just be hanging over my head for who knows how long," said Leroy Maturin, a 33-year-old drain installer who was facing a felony drug possession charge, and because he had no lawyer, had no court date scheduled for the foreseeable future.
The constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana's, where public defenders represent more than eight out of 10 criminal defendants. Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those remaining with caseloads well into the hundreds. In seven of the state's 42 judicial districts, poor defendants are being put on wait lists; here in the 15th, the list is more than 2,300 names long and growing.
A system that less than a decade ago was set on a course of long-needed improvement is succumbing to years of draining resources, just as the state is facing a fiscal crisis that could make things much worse. Judges throughout the state have ordered private lawyers to represent people for free, prompting objections from members of the private bar. Some lawyers being conscripted are tax and real estate lawyers without any background in courtrooms or criminal law: "No prior experience is necessary," a district judge in Lafayette wrote in a recent plea for volunteers.
Here in the state with the country's highest incarceration rate, hundreds of those without counsel are sitting behind bars, including more than 60 people in New Orleans whose cases have either been put on a wait list or refused by the local public defender's office.
With felony caseloads far above the professional standard, the public defender concluded that turning down cases was the only ethical option. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union sued over this in federal court.
With the state in deep fiscal distress, and with higher education and health care funding slashed, further cuts to the public defenders are possible, and perhaps likely.
"Obviously, it's an obligation that they have to be adequately funded," said E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. "But it's also an obligation to fund a lot of other things in this state that are right now in jeopardy." Even if state funding remains stable, however, more than half of the public defender offices could be under austerity plans by fall, turning away clients and laying off lawyers.
"It is in shambles," District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg wrote in a recent ruling, in which he sought private lawyers to represent several jailed defendants. "Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now." What is particularly unfortunate, said Jay Dixon, chief executive of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, is that the system was steadily turning in the right direction.
For decades, local boards set up to administer indigent defense were virtually autonomous and appointed by local judges; in one parish, the board consisted of an embalmer, a real-estate developer and a nightclub owner.
A 2007 law created a state board with central oversight and statewide guidelines were imposed; since then, the caseloads of public defenders had been dropping from over three times the national standard to a little more than twice. But the law did not fully fix the funding structure, making a crisis a matter of time.
"We have essentially been managing a financial collapse," Dixon said.
While the board distributes a central fund to the various districts, that state money is simply meant to supplement what for nearly all the districts is the main source of revenue: traffic tickets and local court fees.
Louisiana is the only state where local ticket revenues account for a significant source of public defender revenue, said David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based advocacy group. That may be for good reason, he added: "There's no correlation between what a parish raises in traffic tickets and what its indigent counsel needs are." The funding for a given public defender's office can depend on whether there is a highway or a casino in the parish, whether there is a road construction project or a bad flood or even, Dixon said, a hotly contested sheriff's election that is accompanied by a dip in traffic tickets.
There has been one consistent trend in recent years: a plunge in local court revenues statewide. The number of tickets filed in Louisiana courts dropped by more than a quarter between 2009 and 2014, canceling state efforts to raise more money. No one knows exactly why.
"The number of tickets being turned in has plummeted," said Tony Tillman, the chief public defender in Vernon Parish. "We're down 10-plus-thousand a month from two years ago." Some suggest this is because of police reallocating their resources. Others point to the use of diversion programs, in which a defendant can avoid jail by entering a counseling program or doing community service.
All of this highlights the contradiction at the heart of Louisiana's public defense system. For those with little money, trends away from tickets and jail time may be a welcome development. But those same trends jeopardize a poor person's ability to get a lawyer if he or she needs one.
"All of those are policies we've supported," Derwyn Bunton, the Orleans Parish chief public defender, said of measures to reduce incarceration and punitive fees. "But because of the perverse incentives and the absurdity of our system, it's hurt us here in the public defender's office. It just makes you shake your head." Pointing out that court fees are paid only on conviction, Dixon added: "It's even worse than that. Our revenue is partially dependent on our losing." These days, many people have not even had a chance to win or lose.
Josh Chevalier, 18, has been in the Lafayette Parish jail for three weeks on burglary charges, with no lawyer and no court date in sight.
"I thought you know, I was going to get questioned and get a summons and be put on an ankle monitor until I got an attorney," Chevalier said in a phone interview.
But in a hearing that lasted a "minute or two at the most," the judge set a $52,000 bond and that was that. Since then a detective has interviewed him twice, he said, and the public defender's office sent him a letter explaining that no lawyers were available. His mother is suffering from dementia, his father will not take his calls and his savings from a job at Dairy Queen are not nearly enough to make bail, not to speak of hiring an attorney, he said.
Without a lawyer, he cannot make the case for a bail reduction. Without getting out of jail, he cannot go back to work. And so he waits.
"I was told that there wasn't much that they could really do," he said.
After the arraignment in Vermilion Parish, Branden Gaspard, an 18-year-old charged with a simple battery misdemeanor, was driven by his grandmother back to the tattered three-bedroom house they share.
Gaspard has led a complicated life, as the son of a felon, a homeless teenager and a committed patient in a mental health hospital.
He thought he would explain himself to the judge and face a manageable penalty, but the judge told him he could be facing six months. So he added his name to the wait list.
"It's a bunch of poor people," Gaspard said. "Where the hell are they supposed to get their money?" His grandmother, Sandra Breaux, listened quietly from her armchair. When Gaspard finished, she added: "I don't understand this system."