Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. Cardozo Law School Prof. Ellen Yaroshefsky testified that it runs not a justice system but a “processing system”. – gwc
by Derwyn Bunton //Chief Defender for Orleans Parish / Louisiana
New Orleans — ON an ordinary day, the Criminal District Court here begins with a parade of handcuffed and shackled defendants being led out from cages behind the judge’s bench by sheriff’s deputies. They are clad in orange jumpsuits and are almost exclusively African-American men. They rattle and shuffle their way onto benches and into the empty jury box, waiting for the judge.
When their case is called, a lawyer from the public defender’s office will rise and say: “Your Honor, we do not have a lawyer for this person at this time.”
Eight-five percent of these defendants are unable to afford their own lawyer and will need a public defender to represent them. But in New Orleans, where I am in charge of the public defender’s office, we simply don’t have enough lawyers to handle the caseload. Last month, we began refusing new cases.
In a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, the system to defend the poor is broken.
To understand why, look at the other people in the courtroom sitting on benches set aside for the audience. Most of these people aren’t there to watch the proceedings. Many were subpoenaed for failing to pay fines or fees for minor offenses and had to take time from work to appear in court or be charged with contempt. Those fines and fees pay for two-thirds of the Louisiana public defender system. The rest comes from the state.
It is not an exaggeration to say that fines from traffic offenses, which, in Louisiana, can result in jail time, play a big part in determining whether one of those men in the orange jumpsuits receives an adequate defense required by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
Poor people must pay $40 to apply for representation, and an additional $45 if they plead guilty or are found guilty. No other states lean so heavily on fines and fees paid mostly by the poor. And there is a reason for that. The system isn’t working.
Louisiana spends nearly $3.5 billion a year to investigate, arrest, prosecute, adjudicate and incarcerate its citizens. Less than 2 percent of that is spent on legal representation for the poor.
It is little wonder that Louisiana has the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and exoneration for wrongful convictions.