In Caddo Parish in northwest Louisiana, the public defender’s office is struggling to provide council for hundreds of poor clients in need of state-funded legal representation.
The Guardian recently featured one such defendant, a 16-year-old by the name of Norman Williams Jr., who is currently facing life in prison for armed robbery.
Here in Louisiana, the oil and gas industries have been hit hard, which has led to a statewide economic decline that affects funding for various services, including public defense. Funding for public defenders relies on the state and traffic ticket fines.
In an effort to offset the lack of funding, judges in the Caddo Parish have been assigning criminal cases to lawyers that specialize in other areas of the law, like personal injury, bankruptcy, insurance, and adoption.
Civil vs. Criminal Law
Here are just a handful of differences between these two very disparate areas of law:
- Civil lawyers represent clients in lawsuits, whereas criminal lawyers work within the criminal justice system.
- Defendants in civil law are not entitled to a lawyer, whereas those accused of a crime are entitled to a public defender.
- Civil lawyers represent clients seeking monetary compensation or gain, whereas failure of the defense in criminal law can often lead to incarceration.
The constitution guarantees every citizen accused of a crime the right to a qualified attorney. However, Louisiana is struggling to organize thousands of defendant cases with fewer and fewer resources. In some cases, 22 public defenders are managing more than 15,000 cases.
The big question is, are these defendants receiving fair representation, and will the state be able to function with the shortage of public defense? Of course, there’s also a fear that the state will be forced to release possibly dangerous defendants if things remain congested.
For now, assigning non-criminal attorneys to these cases has been a crude solution that some civil lawyers find deeply disturbing.
“Their ‘solution’ is to put up cardboard cut-outs of defense lawyers in place of actually spending the money on real public defenders,” said Ryan Goodwin, the insurance attorney formerly assigned to Williams’ case.
Problems From the Past
In March of 2014, a man named Glenn Ford (link to other blog post) was exonerated of murder in Louisiana after spending three decades in prison. Back in 1984, Ford’s case was randomly assigned to an oil and gas attorney and a slip-and-fall attorney under the direction of Shreveport’s local bar. Ford died a year after his exoneration, and neither he nor his family ever received compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Most civil lawyers taking on criminal defense cases are not paid for their services and rarely offered funds to help hire expert witnesses or investigators, which again begs the question: is this constitutional?
For the time being, the practice of assigning non-criminal defense to the indigent has waned, thanks in part to the start of the new fiscal year, which began back in July. However, the people of Louisiana should be aware that public criminal defense is hard to come by and an excruciatingly long journey to face while sitting in jail.
Criminal law and the legal services provided by personal injury lawyers, insurance lawyers, and other civil law professionals, are not equal; they are different, and individuals require the appropriate representation when and if the need ever arises.