In January, the public defender’s office in the Orleans Parish—alongside 13 other judicial districts in Louisiana—announced that new indigent felony offenders would be forced to place their name on a waitlist in order to receive free legal representation. Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and adding unjust restrictions to those accused of a crime is an upsetting blow to the rights of the state’s poor.
Not appointing an inmate legal representation is not only illegal, but a flagrant rejection of human rights. And although the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Orleans Parish public defender’s office in federal court over this issue, public defenders throughout the state agree with the ACLU that refusing an inmate legal representation is a total disaster. In fact, the public defenders can’t even afford to defend themselves in this case. Louisiana’s current fiscal crisis, paired with the state’s reliance on traffic tickets and court fees to pay for their defense services, has ultimately led 13 out of 42 judicial districts to let go of half of their public defense staff. The parish of Vermilion, which has a population of over fifty-nine thousand people, has only one public defender on the payroll.
To understand how this legal crisis affects individuals, we spoke with Josh Chevalier, who was awaiting an attorney in Louisiana’s Lafayette County Jail. The 18-year-old was arrested a month ago on a non-violent felony offense and this is his story.
I’m sitting in [jail] without an attorney, with no progress on my trial. I’m in a really bad situation; I want something to be done.
When I was arrested at my house, the cops didn’t talk to me. When I got to jail, I knew I wouldn’t have a say because there wasn’t an attorney [appointed] to me. The reason why I feel intimidated by [this process] is because when I was arrested, the cops lied to me about my charges. When they questioned me without an attorney, they listed every other charge except the specific one that was putting me away.
A detective has interviewed me twice since I’ve been in jail, but I still haven’t seen an attorney. That means I’ve been talking to a detective without an attorney present. There are a couple people in my jail pod that are in the same situation as me. They can’t get a public defender because attorneys keep getting laid off and there is no one available to take on their cases. They’re just letting us sit in here.
The security guards and the deputies are disrespectful. They talk to the inmates any kind of way they want. Even the way they serve the food is disrespectful. And there’s never enough food; the way they feed you in here, you will need a commissary to keep yourself full.
Every morning at 4 a.m. they turn the lights on. Breakfast is at 5:30 a.m. Then I try and fall asleep, but there’s roll call an hour later, and it’s chaotic because they allow the doors to slam. Every time I fall asleep I jump up from the loud banging noise of the metal doors. I have horrible anxiety and get paranoid when I hear the doors shut. I’ve even managed to bruise my ribs from jumping up at the noise. This is all day and night. They have checks every 30 minutes.
I have anxiety real bad and I tried to see a doctor for mental health. My sleeping habits are kind of discombobulated. At night I sleep for two hours and then I’m up until breakfast and then try and sleep another two hours. This happens everyday. I know I have issues; I’m in pain.
It’s hard to see a doctor because the jail charges for medical, mental, and dental services. You can’t see a mental health provider without paying, but I have nobody to pay the health providers. When I was out [of jail] I had a medical card that could cover these costs, but I don’t have one in here.
If I had an attorney, I think that the process of speaking with a doctor would go by faster. Maybe something would have already been done by now.
It’s especially hard when you have a family member who is home and ill that needs your attention and care, and I’m scared thinking about how long I’m going to be in here for. I’m not trying to be in here knowing that my mother is sick and needs me. My mom has dementia, so I can’t take care of her. Right now she is being taken care of by my stepdad, which I really don’t feel comfortable with because he needs to go to work so he can continue to pay the bills in order to keep the lights up and the heat on.
When I was younger, I was placed into foster care due to my mom’s illness, but you know, with the right people—attorneys and everything—I returned back to my mom after three months. This was when I was 13 years old. Now I’m 18 and my mom’s dementia is getting worse. Her brain is shrinking.
My mom always took care of me, which taught me to take care of her. When I was 13, I didn’t really get what was going on [with her dementia], but then I took it upon myself to get her seen by a doctor. There wasn’t anyone else around.
I don’t have a relationship with my father. When I called and told him about my situation and that I needed bond money, he said he was going to help. Then he stopped answering my calls and a few days later. He put the jail number on a block so I can’t get in contact with him.
I had a plan to go to community college with the help of financial aid, but this goal seems far away now. I’ve been working at Dairy Queen and my manager voluntarily said he would hold my position for when I get back, but my bond is $52,000 and I don’t have enough money to pay it off. I’ve saved up, but that’s still not enough.
I started working at 16. My first job was at McDonalds. I started off doing janitorial services, a summer job through school. From there, I started working at Checkers. I ended up losing my job at Checkers because I had to go to [court ordered] rehab for a prior offense. Then I went on to work at Dairy Queen. My transportation was my bike; it took me over an hour to get to and from work. I used to get off around 2 a.m., I’d have to stay late to clean. Sometimes I would pick up extra shifts on Saturday and Sunday, working 17-hour days to support my mom. I had to support the household and support my mother’s medical needs.
When I called the public defender’s office, I was on the list for bond reduction, and it was going in front of the judge on March 14. But when I called two or three days later to see if I could get my bond amount reduced, they told me I was ineligible for a reduction.
There are maybe about 10 to 15 people in my pod out of 37 [who don’t have a public defender representing them]. I know people from other pods waiting in the same situation. I knew people who have been in here for a year and still waiting for a public defender.
I don’t even have a court date. I will be in here for a while because the court system is backed up. It’s frustrating that I don’t have a court date and it will be frustrating when I have one because that would mean I’ll be sitting in here for a long time. I’ve tried to apply to the staff program, but apparently due to certain circumstances, they told me that I’m ineligible. But if I had a public defender, they could speak with the DA, and I could get bonded out. And I keep asking to speak with higher management, but I’m not being heard. Nothing I say is heard until I have an attorney that can represent me.
I feel like I need this to be put on TV. Everyone needs to know. I know there are people out there like murderers and rapists who are serving long sentences, but there are also the people in here who have the possibility of getting out because they don’t have serious charges and they are subject to the same treatment. Something needs to be done to support us.
More than a week after we spoke with Chevalier, he was able to join the staff program where he was assigned a case manager. After he successfully completed part of the program, he was able to leave jail on house arrest. Days later, he was given a public defender. Chevalier is now living at home wearing an ankle bracelet and periodically checks in with his case manager. Although he is home with his mother, he is still frustrated he cannot financially provide for her. Presently, he is sitting in a legal limbo—indefinitely ordered on house arrest, living each day waiting to hear from his public defender, and hoping that a court date will be assigned to him soon.