By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

Money to pay for public defense attorneys in Louisiana is slowly drying up, according to Richard Pittman, deputy public defender with the Louisiana Public Defender Board. He said funding comes from a combination of state money and local revenue, “the primary driver of which is traffic tickets and the court costs that come with traffic tickets.”

“The number of traffic tickets filed into courts in Louisiana have declined literally nine consecutive years,” explained Pittman to the Louisiana Interchurch Conference Commission on Criminal Justice.

A shift in funding from the state helped shore up some of the expenses but it’s still not enough, he said.

“The number of criminal cases has declined but not at the rate of the decline of funding. That follows a national trend. There’s a national trend that police aren’t writing as many traffic tickets,” Pittman stated. “There are other factors at play there but the system of funding public defense isn’t working the way it was designed to work.

“As a result, the legislative fix that shifted more money towards public defense, it’s coming back that we need more because of the fact that local funding is not reliable or stable or sufficient.”

Current issues, resources and ideas related to criminal justice in Louisiana is the purpose of the commission meeting, according to Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of prison ministry for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“When we get together and discuss our own challenges or issues, we’re able to share what’s worked in the past or how we can make it work for the future,” said Fjeldsjo.

Among those sharing ideas with Pittman was Cheko Yancy with Louisiana Prison Alternatives (LPA). He noted that LPA was aware of the challenge facing public defenders and funding.

“We’re actually looking at maybe doing something because (public defenders) are really independent from support that other agencies like the DA’s office would have and (they’re) just winging it. So there is talk, like we had to educate people about the unanimous jury, people didn’t know about. I think if we educate people, people will see the inadequacies and the disparity,” said Yancy during the meeting.

Father Donald MacKinnon CSsR, in residence at St. Gerard Church in Baton Rouge who is also involved in prison ministry, asked if anything else could be done, such as writing letters or meeting with lawmakers.

“What I would ask is for people who do talk to a legislator, mention that and tell them you think that it’s important and that you know the way it’s funded isn’t working,” said Pittman. “Good public defense at the front end helps keep people out of prison at the back end.”

Yancy, who was released from prison 15 years ago, after the meeting said he was headed to the Office of Probation and Parole to determine what paperwork was necessary to register to vote on March 1 when a new state law kicks in restoring voting rights to people on probation and parole.

“We’re going to put a process together to try to teach other guys and ladies what they got to do,” said Yancy. “We’re going to publicize it.”

Also attending the meeting was Sandra Kirkendell who gave a presentation of the Reading Connection, a program which provides a video of an incarcerated mom reading a book to their child. The video and the book are sent to the child. The presentation generated interest from others at the meeting who might get members of their church involved.

Tristi Charpentier of the Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation spoke about the foundation’s mission to help those formerly incarcerated return to society. As the meeting came to an end, Father MacKinnon asked that instead of a prayer, everyone look around the room and acknowledge and thank God for the presence of the others and their work toward prison ministry.

“What a fitting way to end this meeting!” said a delighted Fjeldsjo.