Public defense on trial

Public defense on trial

Louisiana’s underfunded public defense system has long left poor people in the state with unequal access to adequate legal representation. This puts poor people at greater risk of going to prison simply because they are poor. Now, a state judge has allowed a class action lawsuit to go forward, recognizing that funding for the representation that the state provides defendants unable to afford legal defense on their own is not simply a budgetary issue, but an issue of the constitutional rights of all Louisianans. The Advocate’s Grace Toohey explains:

“It’s too simplistic to say it’s lack of funding,” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Jamila Johnson said Judge Todd Hernandez affirmed in his ruling. “The constitutional issues are separate from funding. … It’s a system where there is inadequate oversight, … caseloads are too high, there are too many conflicts, … the outcome of the system is that everyone is at risk.” Hernandez, of the 19th Judicial District Court, denied multiple claims from the state trying to dismiss the lawsuit; the state had argued that any fix to the public defense system needs to come from the Legislature because the issues stem from budget problems, and therefore, are “not a matter of law.”  Hernandez disagreed. “The enforcement of or protection of individual constitutional rights can never be dependent upon the availability of public funds,” Hernandez wrote. “Whether the public defense system in the State of Louisiana violates federal and state constitutional rights of the class plaintiffs … is a factual question that must be decided at trial.”


Affordable moves forward in NOLA
It’s increasingly difficult for renters to afford housing in New Orleans: Fifty-six percent of the city’s renters were cost-burdened by rent in 2015, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, and 33 percent were severely cost-burdened, meaning more than half of their income went to the roof over their heads, according to analysis by HousingNOLA. Thanks to a legacy of racial discrimination in government lending policies and continuing discrimination in private market practices, people of color in New Orleans continue to face disproportionate burdens in housing cost and access. The Advocate’s Jessica Williams reports that the City Council voted Thursday to require the city Planning Commission to draft new rules:

Last year, the council asked the Planning Commission to consider three options (for addressing affordable housing access). One would require developers to add affordable units to new projects in certain neighborhoods. Another would apply the mandate only to developers who request zoning changes for their projects, and a third would offer developers incentives for building affordable housing but would not require them to do so. After hearing from both sides, the commission recommended that the council drop the first, broad mandate in favor of the other two choices. But the council on Thursday decided it wanted to continue exploring all three options. A national consulting firm, HR&A Advisors, is expected by next month to complete a study on the range of policy options, including which neighborhoods have the biggest need and incentives that developers could receive in exchange for their investment.


Ripple effects of shutdown in Oakdale
As the government shutdown enters its 35th day, the situation for federal workers missing a second paycheck is becoming increasingly dire. The ripple effects of absent government paychecks are becoming more pronounced in areas with a high proportion of government employees in their workforce, while business where government workers spend their salaries also feel the pinch. NPR’s Ari Shapiro visited Oakdale Louisiana, where he heard from workers at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution, who earn some of the areas best salaries and who have been working without pay since the shutdown began:

SHAPIRO: (James and Tiffany Kirklin, who both work at the Federal Correctional Facility, are) raising three girls in this one-story house on a corner lot with a trampoline in the backyard. And on this rainy day, there’s nowhere to take the kids. No gas money means they can’t drive anywhere. No new after-school activities either – fees are too high. Twelve-year-old Mandi is in the seventh grade.

MANDI KIRKLIN: We can’t do softball. We can barely do basketball.

  1. KIRKLIN: It’s hard to hear the kids say things like that. You know, they don’t understand. And their classmates don’t understand. And a lot of the teachers don’t know that both their parents work for the federal government, so they don’t know that they’re not getting a paycheck. And all my family’s gone, so we have his family here to kind of help out, you know?

SHAPIRO: James, is it hard to ask for help from relatives?

  1. KIRKLIN: Yeah, it is. It is very difficult. I mean, it’s – kind of makes – make you feel like your self-worth is down when you can’t support your own self, especially when you’re used to having two government incomes and you have nothing…

SHAPIRO: Tiffany and James are both working more than 40 hours a week at jobs that are paying them nothing right now. Tiffany has spent hours on the phone with creditors asking to delay car payments, insurance payments. She canceled the cable. She leads us to the kitchen and opens the deep freezer. It’s mostly empty.

  1. KIRKLIN: I know the other day, we were in the grocery store, and I want to say it was Natali asked for something. I kind of just broke down in the grocery store because we’ve never had – not had money for extra food, you know? Now, we might not have the extra money to go bowling, but we’ve never not had the extra money. I’ve never deprived my kids of food.

If the shutdown continues into March, millions of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents, would face devastating interruptions in food assistance benefits, housing assistance benefits, or both.


Tariffs squeeze Louisiana’s soy farmers
This year’s soy harvest has come and gone, and Louisiana’s soy farmers are left with millions of bushels of soybeans that they are unable to sell. In 2017, Louisiana soybeans accounted for $798.2 million of economic activity. As the tariffs have continued, their effects have been felt throughout the state:

Daniel Richard stands in a 250-acre field, surveying the ruins of his hard work: Rotting soybeans as far as the eye can see. “We’re in unchartered waters,” says the fourth-generation Louisiana grain farmer. “We’ve been through tough times, but definitely nothing of this magnitude.” This is just one field Richard had to leave unharvested. In total, about 800 acres, 40 percent of his crop, sit dried out and useless. “We lost the demand in the market with the tariffs. There were no exports. They weren’t shipping out. China wasn’t buying, of course China buys about, a little over 50 percent of our crop.” The rotted beans are worth about $400,000. An equal amount of good, harvested crop is sitting in his full grain bins, with no one to buy them. But it’s not just farmers feeling the pain. Tariffs have hit the trade-sensitive state of Louisiana particularly hard overall. Businesses here paid $19 million in tariffs in October alone, more than eight times the duties paid on the same products one year earlier, according to Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, a bipartisan anti-tariff lobbying group, and economic consulting firm The Trade Partnership.

The effects extend from Louisiana’s soybean fields to its ports, making Louisiana particularly vulnerable to the president’s trade war:

Louisiana’s ports are a major concern in the tariff war. “Louisiana because of our position at the mouth of the Mississippi River handles an enormous portion of agricultural exports nationally,” says Barnes. “So when we think about effects to farmers in Iowa and Missouri, a piece of that’s going to hit Louisiana as well, because we’re no longer handling that cargo.” In fact, breakbulk exports at the Port of New Orleans were down 14 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, mostly due to the decline in agricultural cargo. The port handles 60 percent of export grain from the Midwest. Imports were even harder hit, down 26 percent, much of that decline driven by steel. Barnes says that while some steel mills in Louisiana are benefitting because U.S.-made steel is more competitive now, the negative tariff hit is much broader than any potential upside.


Number of the Day
23.2 percent – Proportion of hispanic workers who have access to paid parental leave. 47.4 percent of white, non-hispanic workers have access to paid parental leave through their employer. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)