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"We were in a mess before, and now we're in a boiling mess," says state Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, chairwoman of a legislative task force on indigent defense. She says she doesn't know what state and local officials can tell the courts that would help the situation. "The state doesn't have any money."
In New Orleans, nearly 80% of all criminal defendants typically are represented by public defenders, says the New Orleans' Indigent Defender Board, which oversees the defenders' office. Before Katrina hit in August, the office had 42 lawyers. It now has six. Its annual budget has dropped from $2.5 million to $500,000.
"We have one staff person. We have one investigator. We have no capital case defense lawyers, no office, no telephones, no computers," board member Laurie White says. She says some defendants have been in jail awaiting hearings longer than they would have served if they had been able to plead guilty.