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Louisiana’s Public Defender System is in Complete Crisis

 The Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions’ promise that anyone who cannot afford an attorney will be provided one without cost has become a myth.  Around the State, poor people charged with crimes, some minor and others serious, languish in jail without attorneys to represent them.  No attorneys visit these incarcerated indigent men and women, work on their cases, or investigate the charges against them.  

The system got to this point because, rather than being properly designed or funded to begin with, it tried to hoist the entire cost of indigent defense system on the poor themselves.  Public defender offices around the state were funded by the erratic and unstable revenue generated from traffic tickets and court costs.  In recent years, as these sources of revenues of sharply declined for a variety of reasons, these public defender offices find themselves unable to even begin discharging their constitutional and ethical duties.  Districts across the State have been forced to restrict their services to varying degrees, including some offices simply no longer having the money to provide an attorney for all people charged with a crime.  Gideon v. Wainwright’s promise of counsel for criminal defendants regardless of their means has been rendered utterly hollow in Louisiana.

The 16th District, which consists of St. Mary, St. Martin, and Iberia parishes, is one of the districts in disrepair.  Though census data shows that African-Americans comprise approximately 32% of the population, public defenders there estimate 80-85% of their clients are people of color.   Poor people of color, charged with crimes by law enforcement departments with sordid racial histories, now sit in cages and in chains, without attorneys, in all of the parishes. 

Marquez Hurst is one such individual.  Mr. Hurst has been incarcerated without an attorney for over four months.  The Public Defender Office has told the trial court now on five occasions that it simply does not have the money to provide Mr. Hurst a lawyer.

PJI represents Mr. Hurst on his habeas action to either finally give him a lawyer, or cease holding him in jail.  We brought a habeas action on Mr. Hurst’s behalf, which was denied in the trial court even though it is beyond dispute no attorney actually is enrolled or represents Mr. Hurst.  The reason: because the judge previously appointed the public defender’s office, even though they have told the court they are unable to represent Mr. Hurst or provide him a lawyer at this time.

Last week, PJI filed an interlocutory appeal in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals challenging this trial court’s decision.  Readers can see that briefing at the bottom of this post.

 

Attachments:
Download this file (2016.04.02 Hurst Writ STAMPED.pdf)Hurst Writ

Statement Regarding the Death of Terrance Carter

Terrance Carter’s untimely death has shocked and saddened us all. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. 

A lot of questions about what happened on Saturday remained unanswered. 

Mr. Carter’s death raises important questions about the conditions of Angola’s disciplinary camps. It also raises concerns about how prisoners with grave mental health concerns are treated within Louisiana’s prisons.  Angola recognized his issues relating to mental health as early as October 2014.  It is unclear whether Mr. Carter’s reported requests for assistance, including asking to be placed on suicide watch, were addressed.

Mr. Carter’s attorney reached out to Angola’s mental health service as recently as last week.  Her phone calls were not returned.  

These events follow decades of documented concerns from loved ones, advocates, and public servants regarding the provision of mental health care and the excessive use of solitary confinement at Angola.  In 2013, for instance, Congressman Cedric Richmond and four other members of Congress called for an investigation into “the egregious and extensive use of solitary confinement and other troubling detention practices” throughout Louisiana’s prisons but especially at Angola.  As far back as 1991, the state knew of serious issues in the provision of mental health care at Angola.  The state’s failure to address these long-standing and well documented concerns has led to this tragedy.

Read this Nola.com letter from Reverend William Barnwell to learn of Terrance Carter's life, commitment to change, and redemption. 

 

New Poll Shows Louisianans Prefer Life Sentences Over the Death Penalty by 2 to 1 Margin

NEW ORLEANS, LA -- A statewide poll released today shows that Louisianans prefer life sentences over the death penalty as a punishment for first degree murder by a 2 to 1 margin. Fifty-seven percent of respondents chose either life without parole (42%) or 35 years to Life (15%) as their preferred punishment for first degree murder, while just 24% selected the death penalty. Life sentences crossed partisan lines with 70% of Democrats, and a strong plurality of Independents (47%) and Republicans (44%) indicating this preference. Life sentences are especially preferred among voters under 40 (71%).

READ THE POLL: https://www.scribd.com/doc/307148799/Louisiana-Voters-on-the-Death-Penalty

The poll also found that a majority of voters did not include the death penalty among their tax priorities, which were dominated by K-12 education (88%), health care (88%), roads and highway repairs (85%), and higher education (75%). Only 37% of voters said that preserving the death penalty was a priority.

State legislators are also concerned about the dent the death penalty is making in the state budget, and will consider bills this session to ensure that new capital cases don’t drive the state further into debt. The legislature recently commissioned the Fiscal Impact Commission to study the fiscal costs of the death penalty and a report is expected in January of 2018. There is no question that the state is spending millions of dollars a year to keep the death penalty. It is estimated that the cost is more than 100 million dollars over the last 15 years. HB 1090, authored by Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport) and SB 450, authored by Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans) were filed on April 5, 2016 and would establish a Capital Cost Commission to determine if funds exist before allowing capital prosecutions to proceed.

Declining support for the death penalty corresponds with a dramatic decline in death sentences in Louisiana over the last two decades. During the 1980s and ‘90s, Louisiana was sentencing approximately 80 people to death per decade. Since that time, Louisiana has experienced a nearly 75% decrease in death sentences. The state has only sentenced 54 people to death since 2000. One person was sentenced to death in 2015, while no one has been sentenced to death in 2016.  Only three people have been executed since 2000.  In contrast, the National Registry of Exoneration reports seven exonerations in the state since 2000.   

“These poll results, along with recent sentencing trends, show that Louisiana citizens are no longer willing to put their name behind the death penalty,” commented Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative. “Recognizing Louisiana’s current fiscal crisis, it’s a good time for the legislature to consider whether this is a governmental program the State really needs.”

As the Governor and legislature work to balance the budget and keep their constituents satisfied, voters report that a legislator’s support for the death penalty is the last thing they consider when voting. The primary considerations are a legislator’s votes on taxes and responsiveness to constituent concerns.

The poll of 600 Louisiana voters was conducted between March 9th – March 16th by Multiquest International and included a random sampling of voters from every parish in the state.

 

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Mayor Landrieu Presents PJI's Client Assistance Coordinator Mara Abramson with Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award for Excellence in National Service

Mara Abramson and Mayor Landrieu

On April 5, 2016 New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recognized PJI's Client Assistance Coordinator, Mara Abramson, for her excellence in national service with the Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award. Mara is an AmeriCorps service member through Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps

Mara coordinates PJI's Client and Family Assistance Project, where she works closely with incarcerated people and their families to maintain meaningful family relationships, and provide incarcerated people with basic hygiene materials, educational materials, and basic medical needs. Mara also coordinates family visits for New Orleans-based families and families throughout Louisiana to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit their loved ones. 

Mayor Landrieu emphasized the importance of Mara's work and recognized the humanity of the clients that she works with every day. 

PJI Staff Mayor

 

 

PJI Files Habeas in the 16th District for the Release of Defendants Due to the State’s Failure to Provide Attorneys

Louisiana’s budget crisis and huge gap in provision of legal representation has hit the 16th District of Louisiana hard. Currently, the 16th District (Iberia, St. Martin, and St. Mary) have people languishing in jail without a lawyer. Some of the accused are juveniles facing life without parole. 

PJI’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus asks for the release of defendants whose constitutional right to due process has been violated- forcing the accused to deteriorate in jail without representation.

The District Attorney’s office receives five times the amount of funding that the overworked and underfunded public defender’s office receives. The 16th District is currently shouldering a caseload of three times the recommended guidelines for representation. 

With the current funding levels, the public defender’s office will be forced to close its doors on December 16th.