For Louisiana’s defenseless poor, it’s one for all


Meet Rhonda Covington, the last line of defense for thousands in need of an attorney in a forgotten corner of rural Louisiana

Rhonda Covington is short on time. As the only public defender for the 20th judicial district of Louisiana, she has a lot to take care of.

At any given moment, she could be investigating cases, calling witnesses, scouring through evidence, taking photos at crime scenes (with her own camera), meeting with her clients families, writing motions, typing up pleadings, making appointments, answering the phones, answering the door, getting the mail at the post office, filling in timesheets, filing monthly reports, doing the accounting, paying the rent and utilities, cleaning the bathroom, dusting the furniture, sweeping and mopping the floors, taking out the trash, trimming the bushes, unclogging the plumbing, buying the toilet paper, or meeting with everyone arrested in a thousand-square-mile area just north of Baton Rouge, within 72 hours of their arrest.

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The Marshall Project

This series was reported in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system.

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There are days, she says, when I feel that I could literally scream to the top of my lungs for 10 minutes.

Every Wednesday, she makes an all-day trip to the infamous Angola prison to meet with clients.

Every other night, she visits inmates at the local jail.

Every weekend, she works.

She also appears in court almost daily, where she handles all types of cases juvenile and adult, misdemeanor and felony.

Earlier this year, following what Governor John Bel Edwardss office called the largest budget crisis in our states history, the Louisiana public defense system spiraled into fiscal ruin. Public defenders who had long depended on a highly unstable source of funding traffic tickets now saw their revenues slashed further. Soon, many districts were finding makeshift ways of getting by including Caddo Parish, which conscripted tax attorneys, real estate attorneys and other novice recruits from the private bar to fill in for the overwhelmed defenders.

But in other towns, public defense offices have been left to fend for themselves. Stripped of full-time attorneys, investigators, translators, social workers and support staff, they are now little more than ragtag, part-time squads.

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