A class action lawsuit has been filed in Baton Rouge against Governor John Bel Edwards and the public defenders board accusing the state for failing to adequately fund the Louisiana’s public defender system.

Deputy Legal Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Lisa Graybill, says the U.S. Constitution requires that all accused be provided a suitable defense.

But she says that’s not happening in Louisiana.

“Public defenders in Louisiana routinely fail to investigate their clients’ cases, to file critical motions on their behalf, or even to meet with their clients and explain their charges to them,” Graybill said.

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Graybill says budgetary strains leave public defenders carrying two to five times the number of cases recommended. She says 85% of defendants in Louisiana are poor, and without proper counsel, they are denied advocacy during arraignments, access to evidence, and assistance with plea negotiations.

“These dire circumstances compel defendants to plead guilty and also inevitably results in wrongful convictions, thereby further swelling state’s already record setting prison population,” Graybill said.

The suit notes that Louisiana is the only state that relies primarily on court fees to fund public defender legal services, which includes a fee assessed against indigent defendants. Mark Cunningham, a senior partner with Jones Walker LLP, says that means public defender offices receive more funding for losing cases than winning them.

“The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent upon budget demands, and the rule of law is not contingent upon budget demands. So now is the time for the courts to intercede,” Cunningham said.

The lawsuit on behalf of 13 plaintiffs seeks require the state to change its public defender system and for a monitor to be appointed to supervise the system until a new one can be implemented.

The Governor’s Office issued a statement saying, “The governor understands the budget challenges facing state government as a whole. Our office is currently reviewing the lawsuit and will make comments through our executive legal counsel at the appropriate time.”