Harson certainly has a lot on his plate these days. His office has been shrouded in controversy (from disturbing revelations of mismanagement and ineptitude to outright criminality) for more than a year (see "Fore," the May cover story of IND Monthly) — all of this ongoing as he apparently kicks off another re-election campaign.
That forfeited money is the result of a bonded individual failing to show up for his or her court appearance. In judicial districts throughout the state, bond forfeiture collections are the responsibility of the DA’s office. For the 15th JDC, 30 percent of the money collected in the three parishes stays with the DA’s office and a critical 20 percent goes to the Public Defender’s Office. For money collected in Lafayette Parish, the remaining 50 percent is split equally between the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office. Likewise, half of the money collected in Acadia and Vermilion parishes stays with those respective clerks' and sheriffs' offices.
“Say you’re arrested for possession of marijuana; it’s your third offense and your bond is $10,000. Well, many of us don’t have that kind of money just laying around so we get a bail bondsman,” says District Defender Paul Marx of the 15th Judicial Public Defender’s Office. “The bail bondsman will require you pay 13 percent, or $1,300, and he says if this guy doesn’t show up in court, y'all can take my $10,000. We get a cut of that money, but the only one who can collect it is the DA.”
Marx says the process is quite simple. Once a defendant is a no-show in court, all the DA has to do is make an “immediate motion for forfeiture,” get the judgment and collect the money from the bondsman. Sounds easy enough, yet, according to Marx, the money from forfeited bond collections has been on the steady decline, especially this year. That lack of funding is one factor putting a tight squeeze on the district defender’s budget.
“The money is just not coming into the system anymore,” says Marx. “Whether it’s because of the DA’s ineptitude or if some of Harson’s people have left or what, all I know is the collections aren’t being taken care of. It seems the money’s there, [but] it’s just not coming in.”
Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret says he’s aware of the drop as well.
“Of course we don’t like when people commit crimes, but we do like when they forfeit their bonds because everybody gets a share of the money,” says Perret. “That’s where it gets a little strange though. We’re not getting the money we think other parishes are getting. Why exactly? Maybe the DA’s not being forceful enough about it? I’m not sure what’s the problem.”
According to receipts supplied by Marx, which show the amount received by his office for the last seven fiscal years, the biggest drop occurred this year with his office projected to receive only $8,220. Marx says the 2013 projection — which includes collections taken from all three parishes of the 15th — is based on the receipts received from the start of this fiscal year on July 1, 2012, through April and represents the anticipated total amount his office will have received once the books close June 30.
Unless something unexpected happens, and an outpouring of collections suddenly come rolling in, this year's cut for the public defender's office will equal a drop of more than 80 percent from the $43,020 received last year. By comparison, in 2007, the office's budget was propped up by a whopping $86,113.
Marx’s receipts also show the DA has failed to collect a single forfeiture in Acadia Parish (the last collection there came in 2010), indicating either all of the bonded accused made every court date or monies due parish agencies have gone uncollected. Marx's receipts for Vermilion Parish show an even stranger disparity between 2009 and 2011, when the collections went from $2,352 (2009) down to zero (2010), only to skyrocket to $16,307 the very next year.
So far, Marx's budget issues have resulted in more than $40,000 in cuts this year, resulting in the elimination of four attorney contracts and one open position being left vacant — perhaps avoidable if not for the severe collections dropoff. He says the goal will be finishing the fiscal year without completely exhausting his fund balance. Since November, that fund balance has steadily dwindled, going from $566,458 down to $311,584 as of March 1. He says based on projections, he expects to finish the fiscal year with a remaining fund balance of about $141,000.
"There won't be anymore imminent cuts for the next 90 days or so," Marx says. "We'll be close to exhausting the fund balance, but we're not closing up shop or anything. It'll just be close. Luckily we'll have our [$1.3 million] state grant in July or early-August. So for now we just have to get through the next 60 or so days to finish out our budget year."
The IND did touch base with Harson by email, and in a message sent Wednesday afternoon, he writes: "I'm getting the information together and will respond in the very near future."
Below are the receipts showing the cut received by the public defender's office between 2007 and the present (keep in mind these figures represent only 20 percent of the grand total Harson's office collected):