Traffic tickets represent the bulk of “conviction and user fees,” the report said, which go directly to public defender offices on a monthly basis in the judicial districts where the so-called revenues were generated.
COVID-19 and weather disasters were blamed for the deficit spending because they diminished the amount of traffic tickets administered by local authorities – a main source of public defender funding.
“Our experience tells us that traffic filings decline and don’t bounce back up,” State Public Defender Remy Starns said in a statement included in the audit report. “The singular event of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020 devastated collections but continued new outbreaks along with periodic weather disasters have prevented an expected rebound.
Such revenues have declined every year since 2009, the report said, forcing state taxpayers to make up the difference.
Starns sits on the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding, a 30-member bipartisan group tasked with overhauling how the state’s justice system is paid for. Reform advocates said funding Louisiana’s justice system through fines, fees, charges, ticketing and other costs creates perverse incentives, often indebting those who can least afford it.
“After failed efforts to improve local funding through increasing the court costs per ticket, state funding is becoming a greater proportion of the overall district funding,” the statement continued.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, the most-recent information contained in the report, 22 of the 41 public defenders’ offices that submitted financial reports to the LAA had negative financial balances.
All public defender revenues during the period totaled $56 million, auditors said, while statewide combined expenses totaled $55.4 million. Calcasieu (-$499,146), Bossier/Webster (-$269,328) and Vernon (-$217,632) parishes had the largest deficits.
The legislative auditor recommended overdrawn districts submit corrective action plans to the state Public Defender Board, which would then provide financial guidance. “The Board should continue to monitor the fiscal operations and financial position of all public defenders,” auditors said.
In a response letter, Starns recounted how diminished local revenues have led to increasing shares of state financial support over the previous decade. The Board also keeps an emergency fund to manage district shortfalls, he said, “but there is every possibility that sharp declines may overtax this fund.” Starns said relying on traffic tickets and other CUFs is “unreliable, unpredictable and unsustainable” and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse.
The Justice Funding Commission is slated to produce a reform report for state lawmakers ahead of the 2022 regular legislative session. In recent meeting, Starns said, “Identifying a stable funding option is the whole game here.”