Bill To Guarantee Public Defender Funding Advances In House

BATON ROUGE (AP) — A Thursday debate on public defender funding had one lawmaker questioning the cost of Louisiana's death penalty.

         Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, said he is not sure it justifies the about $10 million that capital defense services receives annually.

         Pylant spoke during discussion about a proposal to reconfigure the state Public Defender Board and specifically allocate 65 percent of its annual budget to local public defenders. The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 10-2 to send the proposal to the full House for debate.

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         The bill, brought by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, would reduce the 15-member board to 11 in a move to make it more effective and guarantee a funding threshold for local defenders "doing the ground work," he said. He said his proposal was not a criticism of the current board.

         Lawmakers debated the board's funding requirements at a time when strained operating budgets have led some parishes to restrict indigent defense operations under the threat of layoffs and shuttered courts.

         Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, said he was hesitant to require future boards to enforce any specific funding percentages because of the uncertain nature of funding reliant on state money, local revenues and court costs.

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         Hugo Holland, with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said a fundamental issue is that too much state money is "thrown at" the capital system. He pointed to the board allocating a third of its funds to the system at the expense of public defenders' offices.

         Mack added that the mandated funding percentage wouldn't differ much from the general percentage already given to public defenders, but it would guarantee funding to help them set budgets. He said he was willing to hear ideas on the bill, which he called "a work in progress."

         Supporters of the redesign called the capital program too costly, while opponents said the mandated percentage would take away from important work instead of fixing Louisiana's underfunded criminal defense system. Funding capital services, the opponents argued, is necessary because the time and cost it takes to prosecute the cases would bankrupt local district attorney offices.

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         Kerry Cuccia, Capital Defense Project director, called the figures given to the committee misleading, and he said "only slightly more than half" of the $10 million figure goes to trial services. The capital defenders receiving the funding have taken all cases and met success, he said.

         "The idea that this money is somehow being wasted … is simply not true," Cuccia said.

         The issue, he countered, lies in a state criminal defense system that does not have enough money to meet demands.

         – by AP Reporter Megan Trimble

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