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ACLU files lawsuit over public defender shortage in New Orleans

[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] and the ACLU of Louisiana [advocacy website] filed a class action lawsuit [complaint] on Thursday against the New Orleans Public Defenders Office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board [official websites] due to the lack of available public defenders for individuals with no access to an attorney. The ACLU claims that as a result of the lack of state funding for public defenders, individuals are forced to wait months in jail without counsel or accept bail and plea negotiations which can have irreparable effects on their case. The ACLU alleges that this is a violation of constitutional rights guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment [text] guarantees of due process, equal protection and competent representation.

This is not the first time the New Orleans County Public Defender's Office has struggled to adequately provide enough enough public defenders, who represent close to 80 percent of criminal defendants in New Orleans. Due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 31 of the office's 39 public defenders were laid off and the annual budget was dropped from $2.5 million to $500,000. The financing system was accused of being unconstitutional because it relied heavily on surcharges from traffic tickets, which were abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, and forced poor people to pay for the system. Many cases involving public defenders were suspended [JURIST report] and a petition was granted to free a prisoner facing serious charges because the suspect lacked counsel. Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti, Jr. launched an investigation [JURIST report] in 2006 into the dire finances of the state's indigent defense system.

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