Lawsuit takes aim at Louisiana public defender system

James Howard has been jailed since April 2016, but has only seen his court-appointed attorney twice, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

BATON ROUGE (WGNO) – A class-action lawsuit filed today in East Baton Rouge Parish alleges state officials are denying poor people their constitutional right to counsel by failing to establish an effective statewide public defense system.

Governor John Bel Edwards, the current members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, and the state’s chief public defender are all named as defendants in the suit, which was filed by plaintiffs represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP.

A full 85 percent of Louisiana defendants are indigent, according to the lawsuit.

“The state of Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world, jailing more people per capita than any other state in the United States and more than most countries across the globe,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president and executive director Kristen Clarke said. “Due to racial disparities that infect every stage of the criminal justice system, the vast majority of those impacted are black and minority communities. While incarcerating people at every turn, many for low-level, non-violent offenses, the state fails to meet its constitutional obligation to provide counsel to the poor. This suit seeks to bring long overdue relief to communities that have literally been left defenseless for far too long.”

While the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions guarantee the right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel to anyone charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment, the number of public defenders and other professionals needed for a functioning public defense system in Louisiana falls far below national standards, according to the lawsuit.

Most criminal defendants in the state receive attorneys in name only.

“In just the last year, we have seen Louisiana’s refusal to address the catastrophic failings of its indigent defense system result in the near-closing of defender offices, the laying off of staff and the indefinite detention of poor people awaiting the assignment of an attorney,” Deputy Legal Director at the Southern Poverty Center Lisa Graybill said. “All Louisianans, regardless of income, have the right to the assistance of an attorney if they face the loss of liberty. State officials and politicians have looked the other way as the system has fallen further into crisis. They’ve had the chance to fix it and they have failed, time and again. The operation of a two-tiered system of justice degrades our state, violates our state and federal constitutions and simply cannot continue. We have asked the court to intervene because the poor in this state can wait no longer for justice.”

The suit says the court “can remedy the denial of the fundamental right to counsel by ordering Defendants to comply with their statutory mandate and by appointing a monitor to ensure enforcement of the professional and ethical standards applicable to public defenders.”

Watch a video of plaintiffs affected by the issues the lawsuit is attempting to address in a video below: