By now, the line is etched permanently in the memory. It was heard in every episode of “Law & Order” and countless other police shows on TV.
You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will appointed to you.
It’s part of the Miranda rights that protect us against overzealous police and prosecutors, as American as the premise that all are to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The reality is, in most cases, police get it right. The person arrested is guilty. And providing representation is costly to taxpayers. Approximately 90 percent of cases in the criminal justice system require a public defender. Why bother?
Easy. The system can get it wrong. Look at all of the cases where DNA evidence has shown erroneous convictions. Imagine the chaos and the greater chance of error if competent legal representation wasn’t provided.
The statues of Justice seen around courthouses show a woman blindfolded, not to turn an eye to systemic abuse but to assure fairness.
So it should concern everyone that more than 40 percent of Louisiana’s public defender offices ran deficits in 2013.
The state Legislature appropriates $33 million to the state Public Defender Board, which then doles out the money to the local offices: $17 million is divided among the 42 local districts; $13 million goes to nine nonprofit organizations — $9 million to death penalty cases; and $3 million accounts for the state board’s budget.
The share for the 4th Judicial District makes up only 25 percent of its budget. And with the state’s budget woes, those funds might be in jeopardy.
The other 75 percent comes from local funding based on traffic ticket fines or forfeited bail bonds. Recently, those funds, too, have been declining. The district has enough money to fund indigent defense through August 2016.
When that money runs out, desperate measures may be taken. In 1986, lack of funding resulted in attorneys — some with little criminal defense experience — being appointed by the courts to handle public defense, some without compensation. Pity the defendant who has to rely on counsel that is inexperienced coupled with a lack of motivation.
If the 4th District has to again rely on appointed attorneys, the docket certainly will slow down. That requires longer stays in jail in cases where bail is a problem, adding to the taxpayers’ costs.
But a greater concern lies with the possibility cases could be reversed because adequate counsel could not be provided. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled defendants are entitled to adequate counsel, and if that cannot be provided a guilty verdict can be reversed. That serves no one. Retrial further ties up the courts, increases costs and plays with the dignity of the defendant.
A local criminal case policy board is looking at ways to improve finances to prevent a worst case scenario. It’s imperative that 4th District Attorney Jerry Jones and the court do everything they can to improve the collection of fines, fees and assessments. Justice depends on it.