A class action suit has been filed in Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court alleging that an overwhelming number of the Black,  indigent defendants in the state are being systematically denied their constitutional right to adequate counsel.

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The complaint names as defendants Gov. John Bel Edwards, current members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the state’s chief public defender—the latter two are charged with overseeing and administering public defense services, respectively.

“This suit seeks to bring long overdue relief to communities that have literally been left defenseless for far too long,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the plaintiffs along with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP. She added in her statement, “While incarcerating people at every turn, many for low-level, non-violent offenses, the state (Louisiana) fails to meet its constitutional obligation to provide counsel to the poor.”

Clarke said Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States and jails people more than most countries. It also has the second-highest wrongful conviction rate among U.S. states.

According to the complaint, a majority—85 percent—of defendants in Louisiana are indigent, and a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated are Black Americans, who comprise 70 percent of the prison population.

Many of those poorer defendants, however, often stagnate in jail while awaiting a public defender, the suit alleges. Due to Louisiana’s reliance on court fines and fees to finance the public defense office, it is often understaffed. And, public defenders are often so overwhelmed that they often simply advise their clients to take a plea agreement.

“In just the last year, we have seen Louisiana’s refusal to address the catastrophic failings of its indigent defense system result in the near-closing of defender offices, the laying off of staff and the indefinite detention of poor people awaiting the assignment of an attorney,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Center, in a statement.  “State officials and politicians have looked the other way as the system has fallen further into crisis. They’ve had the chance to fix it and they have failed, time and again.”

The lawsuit is not seeking monetary damages but an injunction prohibiting the named officials from maintaining a public defender system that fails to provide constitutionally guaranteed representation for poorer defendants.  It also asks for the appointment of a monitor to oversee the implementation of statewide reforms to the public defender’s system.

The operation of a two-tiered system of justice degrades our state, violates our state and federal constitutions and simply cannot continue,” Graybill added. “We have asked the court to intervene because the poor in this state can wait no longer for justice.”