Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was sued Monday by lawyers who say the public defender system denies effective representation to the poor, the Associated Press reports. The suit describes defendants waiting months in jail to meet a lawyer, defenders who are woefully overworked and so little funding that in some areas, low-level offenders don’t get a public defender at all. Without lawyers to advocate for them, it says, defendants have been advised to plead guilty rather than pursue their right to try clearing their names. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and two law firms sued on behalf of 13 criminal defendants. They seek class-action status to cover all the indigent defendants accused of non-capital crimes in Louisiana.
Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee, said as many as 20,000 defendants could be affected. About 85 percent of the state’s defendants are so poor they qualify for a public defender. The lawsuit cites cases like that of Ashley Hurlburt in Winnfield Parish has been jailed since June 2016 on a charge of negligent homicide after her child’s death, and “remains entirely in the dark about the proceedings and her future,” the lawsuit says. Her first public defender left over a conflict of interest; her second was appointed three months ago but she’s never met the lawyer. The median funding level across the state’s 42 judicial districts was $238.69 per case, well below what many lawyers charge for a single hour of work.