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St. John justice system to suffer major cuts if funding decline continues, Stricks says

LAPLACE — The St. John the Baptist Parish justice system will suffer from employment cuts and lowered salaries if funding continues to decline throughout 2019, District Public Defender Richard Stricks said.

It costs approximately $55,000 per month to provide legal representation to St. John Parish residents who cannot afford to hire a lawyer and cover all fixed administrative costs, according to Stricks.

Funding collected through court costs from traffic tickets and hearings, while constantly in flux, has seen a decline from $64,292 in February 2018 to $46,438 in February 2019. Incoming revenue has hovered below $60,000 since August, and Stricks said at least one public defender could be cut by July 1 if the situation is not quickly reversed.

“The quality of services will inevitably suffer from financial hardship, whether because lawyers have bigger caseloads or because there are people in jail waiting for a lawyer,” Stricks said, noting availability of public defenders is essential.

“It’s a constitutional requirement that the state provide lawyers for people accused of crimes that are in need,” he said.

Located at 425 W. Airline Highway Suite D in LaPlace, the Public Defender Office employs 11 attorneys. The office provides legal representation for misdemeanor, felony, delinquency, abuse and neglect cases.

Individuals who are imprisoned are presumed eligible for a public defender. Those released from custody may qualify through an application process based on income level, government assistance, disability or other factors.

The Public Defender Office also receives funding from the Louisiana District Assistance Fund, though Stricks said St. John Parish receives less than 1 percent of the state’s need-based allocation.

“There’s not enough money to go around,” Stricks said. “We either have to cut positions or decrease fees and salaries. That’s what drives people away. We like to keep the people who have experience because they provide the best service to the clients.”

Stricks said court cost funding has been a “rollercoaster” of good years and bad years unrelated to caseloads or attorney performance.

Funding is a statewide problem requiring legislative action, according to Stricks.

He plans to make a plea to Louisiana Public Defender Board for more state funding.

District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut meets with Stricks monthly to monitor budgets.

According to Dinvaut, a majority of court costs come from a highway safety program known as Local Agency Compensated Enforcement (LACE).

The Public Defender office gets $45 on every court fee through LACE, which also distributes funds for the District Attorney’s Office, the St. John Sheriff’s Office, the St. John Clerk of Court and several other parish and state agencies.

LACE was shut down for 18 months beginning in 2016, during which time local agencies faced drastic reduction in revenues, according to Dinvaut.

She said there’s no sure way to predict funding, adding collections could be impacted by traffic stop frequency, unpaid tickets or court costs not being collected due to dismissal or diversion for first time offenders.

“I wish we did not have to depend in part on this fluctuating revenue source, but this is the system we have to work with because the legislature made this decision,” Dinvaut said. “What I have pledged to Mr. Stricks is that I will do whatever I possibly can to keep our criminal justice system working at an optimal level.”

She anticipates a further decline in March for LACE funding, making it essential all entities impacted work together to monitor budgets and keep the court system running smoothly.

Dinvaut is contemplating a partnership with another LACE agency to augment police detail from the St. John Sheriff’s Office and Louisiana State Police.

While likely to increase court collections, Dinvaut said the purpose is public safety.

“The LACE program is not about tickets,” Dinvaut said. “Right now, St. John the Baptist Parish has experienced far too many accidents. There is a huge highway safety issue, and we have suffered too many fatalities as a result.”