Audit: Little monitoring of La. public defenders

Audit: Little monitoring of La. public defenders

Audit: Little monitoring of La. public defenders

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wwltv.com

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 3:00 PM

Melinda Deslatte / The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The board that oversees Louisiana's public defender system does a poor job of making sure the lawyers provide adequate legal representation for clients facing the death penalty, according to an audit released Monday.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board monitors the state's 42 judicial district offices that provide attorneys for defendants who can't afford a lawyer. It also contracts with six nonprofits to handle appeals in death penalty cases for poor clients and to help district offices that can't represent a defendant because of a conflict of interest, lack of funds or other problems.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office looked solely at the board's work handling capital cases, not its other indigent defense work.

The report said in capital cases the board hasn't reviewed the work as required under its contracts, hasn't established any performance standards for lawyers though the benchmarks are required by law and doesn't track the price of defense work to make sure it's provided in a cost-effective way.

"State law requires (board) staff to monitor the performance of all capital defense attorneys to ensure that each defendant is receiving high quality legal representation," auditors wrote. "However, LPDB does not adequately monitor the ongoing performance of attorneys."

In a written response, the board took issue with some of the report's findings, saying it does more monitoring than the audit suggests through monthly trial reports, the certification process for its attorneys and other tracking methods.

But a board leader also said the agency intends to make improvements and was working on performance standards.

"While we might disagree with certain aspects of the report, on the whole it provides our office with guidance and the opportunity for improvement," wrote Robert Burns, a retired judge and vice chairman of the public defender board.

The board was created by the Legislature in 2007 to oversee indigent defense statewide. It had a $33.1 million budget for the last fiscal year, according to the audit.

Funding has been stagnant for three years, and the audit said the district offices have been struggling with deficits and depleting fund balances to cover expenses. The board has repeatedly asked the governor and lawmakers for more money and cites the lack of additional resources as a hindrance to its oversight obligations.

The public defender board "has insufficient staff to observe the performance of all capital defense attorneys in the district and program offices on a regular basis and looks to the district defenders and program directors to supervise their staff," Burns wrote.

Of the allocation for statewide indigent defense, $17.5 million was sent to the district offices for indigent defense in various types of cases, not just the first-degree murder cases. Another $9.7 million was spent on the contract programs. The remaining $5.9 million covered board salaries, training, expert witnesses and other operating expenses, according to the audit.

The audit describes a looming financial problem when the fund balances disappear.

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Online: The audit is viewable at: http://1.usa.gov/1chA6yS

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