Friday, February 24, 2006
By Henry Weinstein
L.A. Times Staff Writer
Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. launched an investigation of the state's troubled indigent defense system Thursday, citing in particular New Orleans' plight since Hurricane Katrina.Foti said he was opening the probe because of recent New Orleans court filings asserting the system was dysfunctional and because of "potential court rulings regarding the funding of indigent defense."
At a hearing Feb. 10 in New Orleans, Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. halted all publicly defended prosecutions in his section of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. He has asked several state legislators to come to his court in early March to answer questions about funding for the city's office for indigent defense.
At the Feb. 10 hearing, the director of the Orleans Parish indigent defense program, Tilden H. Greenbaum III, testified that his staff had been cut from 42 lawyers to six because of hurricane-related funding constraints. Traffic fines provide 75% of the office's $2.2-million annual budget, but those have evaporated since the storm, he said. Louisiana is the only state that uses traffic fines as the main source of funding for indigent defense. The system has been criticized in a host of studies.
Hunter told lawyers Thursday that if the state did not provide more funding soon, he would have to release indigents who had gone months without representation, according to lawyers in his court at the time.
The Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed a resolution this month asking Congress for money to bail out the indigent defense system, even though such money is supposed to be used only for extraordinary costs, not normal operating expenses.
Two years ago, a detailed report from the National Legal Aid & Defender Assn. said Louisiana's system needed at least $55 million a year to function at a minimally acceptable level. At the time, the state was spending $31 million.
In his inquiry, Atty. Gen. Foti has issued subpoenas for information on 20 subjects, including the history and future of funds for indigent defense, and whether the state indigent defender board should be abolished.