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Advocates file important lawsuits seeking reform in Louisiana, Missouri, and South Carolina.

Public defenders in Louisiana can handle only 21 percent of the cases currently assigned.American Bar Association (ABA), The Louisiana Project: A Study of the Louisiana Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards (Washington, DC: ABA, 2017), 2.  According to allegations in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, following a 2016 funding shortage, 33 of Louisiana’s 42 public defender offices either stopped accepting new cases or placed prospective clients on waitlists, a move that would have broad impact, given that 85 percent of people accused of crimes in Louisiana rely on public defenders.Verified Petition for Class Certification and Declaratory and Injunctive Relief at 7, Joseph Allen v. John Bel Edwards, No. 655079 (La. 19th Jud. Dist. Ct. Feb. 6, 2017); and Southern Poverty Law Center (hereinafter “SPLC”), “Joseph Allen, et al. v. John Bel Edwards, et al.,”

Louisiana’s public defense system was the subject of several other legal challenges, as individuals unable to afford legal representation alleged that their right to counsel was denied due to underfunding. In January 2017, a federal judge dismissed one of those lawsuits on jurisdictional grounds, but noted that “the Louisiana Legislature is failing miserably at upholding its obligations under Gideon and admonished the state to “resolve the crisis and locate a stable source of funding.”Darwin Yarls, Jr., v. Derwyn Bunton, 231 F. Supp. 3d 128, 137 (M.D. La. 2017). A class action lawsuit filed in February 2017 alleges that court-appointed attorneys failed to provide adequate representation and, in some cases, never met with their clients.In October 2017, the court ruled against a motion filed by defendants Governor John Bel Edwards, Chief Public Defender Jay Dixon, and all members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. See Ken Daley, “Class-Action Lawsuit Challenging Louisiana’s Public Defense System Can Proceed, Judge Rules,” Times-Picayune, October 18, 2017; and Ruling on Exceptions of No Right of Action, No Cause of Action, and Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Joseph Allen v. John Bel Edwards, No. 655079 (La. 19th Jud. Dist. Ct., October 11, 2017).

In Missouri, a class action lawsuit initiated in March 2017 on behalf of defendants who cannot afford representation alleges that the state’s underfunded public defense system effectively denies them their right to counsel.Class Action Petition for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief, Church v. Missouri, No. 17-cv-04057-NKL (W.D. Mo. Apr. 7, 2017), previously Church v. Missouri, No. 17AC-CC00130 (Mo. Cir. Ct. Cole Cty. March 9, 2017), 2-3. According to the suit, Missouri allocates roughly $356 per case—second to last in the nation—and its public defenders spend less than 20 percent of the minimum time recommended by the American Bar Association per case.Class Action Petition for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief, at 3, 11, 12; and American Civil Liberties Union, “Shondel Church, et al. v. State of Missouri, et al.,”

In South Carolina, indigent defendants allege that since at least 2009, two of the state’s municipal courts have failed to provide them with public defenders and have failed to advise them of their right to court-appointed counsel.Class Action Complaint, Bairefoot v. City of Beaufort, No. 9:17-cv-2759-RMG (D. S.C. Oct. 12, 2017), 1-2. , https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/bairefoot-v-city-beaufort-et-al-complaint. The plaintiffs are requesting money damages for their wrongful confinement.Class Action Complaint, Bairefoot v. City of Beaufort, No. 9:17-cv-2759-RMG (D. S.C. Oct. 12, 2017), 1-2. , https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/bairefoot-v-city-beaufort-et-al-complaint.