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Public defenders office to see cuts

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Story by Bonnie Culverhouse, bonnie@press-herald.com

Thanks to insufficient funding, services in the 26th Judicial District Public Defender Office for Bossier and Webster parishes are being restricted effective immediately.

Pamela Smart, Chief District Defender, says despite efforts to reduce expenditures and increase revenues, her office has been unable to secure the financial resources necessary to provide competent legal representation for all of its clients.

The projected 2015 budget for the Public Defender Office is $1.6 million.

“Now, that’s being cut, of course, but that’s what we projected,” Smart said.

A new state law went into effect June 7, 2012, increasing the special court costs for public defense from $35 to $45. It was projected that this increase in special court costs would generate additional local revenues. However, local revenues have actually decreased since the law went into effect.

“If a case goes into diversion, there is no fine or court cost being paid,” Smart said. “Then we don’t get that $45. It’s kind of a ‘catch 22’ because a client going into diversion is a great thing for the client, but then our funding tanks.”

Smart said some of the budget comes from a portion of bond fees from the sheriff’s offices.

“The state public defender board will give us some money, as well,” she said. “That’s the other problem. That money’s been going down steadily. Revenues are down locally, then the state cuts us, then costs are going up. My poor attorneys. I’ve taken away mileage, bar dues, continuing education and they’ve never had a pay raise. But they’ve stuck it out. They are still doing a good job under adverse conditions.”

Last year, public defenders in the district office saw between 8,000 and 9,000 cases.

“I think our case loads have held steady,” she said. “They may have dipped a little bit, but it hasn’t been a huge decrease.”

To reduce expenditures, the Public Defender Office is restricting services by reducing the number of conflict attorneys on contract from seven to two, and those two remaining attorneys will handle the most serious felony cases.

“This should keep us going a while longer,” Smart said. “The judges have been really good. There is a provision in the code where if someone is declared indigent but is able to help offset the cost of representation, we can collect that.”

She says those assessments could be up to $300 for misdemeanors and $500 for felonies.

“I hope that will fill in the gap and help bring us out of this,” Smart said.

The remaining cases will most likely be assigned to private attorneys, who will be handling the cases without compensation.