Criminal defendants in Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish who can’t afford private attorneys often languish for months in jail, in some cases more than a year, without talking to a lawyer, charges a new lawsuit. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that the class-action case against Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the state legislature says the parish public defender’s office is drastically underfinanced, meaning that people accused of crimes are being denied their constitutional right to be represented by an attorney if they cannot afford to pay. The situation is typical for Louisiana. “The problem is systemic,” said Ron Ware, executive director of the Calcasieu Parish public defender’s office.
The lawsuit says that each of the seven lawyers in the public defender’s office may have up to 400 open felony cases at any given time. It cites the example of a pipe fitter who was arrested Jan. 14, 2003, but has yet to meet with his public defense office attorney. Ware said examples in the lawsuit are “embarrassing,” but that the situation cannot be helped under current circumstances. The head of a state task force that is looking at indigent defense in Louisiana said the legislature has begun looking at the problem.