The Shocking Lack of Lawyers in Rural America

While cities are trying to reform their criminal-justice systems, smaller, more far-flung locales are struggling to provide basic services.

An abandoned-looking house in Jena, the biggest town in Louisiana's LaSalle Parish
Jena is the biggest town in Louisiana's LaSalle Parish. (Brent Stirton / Getty)

LaSalle Parish, Louisiana, a rural agricultural region, is in almost the exact center of the state. In Louisiana, a parish is the equivalent of a county. LaSalle is marked with creeks and rivers that have been rerouted to make space for fast-food restaurants and trailer parks. The biggest town is Jena, with a population of just over 3,000, where one-story clapboard buildings have been constructed around a small downtown.

Scott Franklin was first elected as the LaSalle Parish sheriff in 2007 on a promise to reduce the presence of drug dealers. One of his best-known campaigns, dubbed Operation Fielder’s Choice, was a large-scale drug operation based on three options that Franklin gave to drug dealers when he became sheriff: quit, leave the parish, or go to jail.

In October 2014, a 31-year-old woman named Charty Berry, who had been arrested for driving with a suspended license and had an extensive history of arrests, entered into a deal to “make cases,” or purchase drugs for the purpose of arrests, for detectives working on Operation Fielder’s Choice in order to receive favorable treatment on her pending criminal charges. The detectives also agreed to pay Berry $100 a case. Three months later, Berry told Detective Brant King that she would be able to purchase prescription hydrocodone from a friend of hers, Charles Keene, who lived with his wife, Sherrie, in Tullos, a town of fewer than 400 people. The detectives gave her $20 to purchase the drugs, as well as a wristwatch with a hidden video camera that Berry would use to record the drug buy.

Berry put on the watch, walked to Keene’s home, and knocked on the door. She spoke with both Keene and his wife, recording the entire interaction. Berry later testified that Keene initially said he didn’t have anything to sell her. Then, he seemed to change his mind, telling Berry that he could get some pain pills “from his kin folk,” and asked Berry for $10 a pill. Keene gave Berry two hydrocodone pills from his prescription bottle and took Berry’s $20, telling her he would use the money to replace the pills later. Before leaving, Berry told Keene he was an “all right fellow.”

Less than an hour later, Berry gave the detectives the watch and two hydrocodone pills. In August, the sheriff’s office used that as evidence to arrest both Charles and Sherrie Keene and charge them with distribution of and conspiracy to distribute hydrocodone. The Keenes weren’t the only ones arrested in the summer of 2015 on drug charges. All told, the sheriff’s office picked up 19 people who had been set up by Berry. Most of them were kept in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. The LaSalle Parish District Attorney, J. Reed Walters, without outing Berry as the informant, charged them with drug-related crimes ranging from distribution to criminal conspiracy to distribute, some of which can carry substantial prison terms.

Until that point, these events could have taken place in any number of towns in the U.S. But what happened next reflects the serious lack of resources in the criminal-justice system in rural areas such as LaSalle Parish. Everyone charged with a crime was appointed a public defender by the judge, as promised by the Constitution. But only three public defenders served the entire parish, working for the 28th Judicial District Court, and they each had more than three times the state’s recommended caseload; all held second or even third jobs to make their own ends meet. In fact, at the time the Keenes were arrested, the public defender’s office was operating under a “restricted services” agreement, which tried to limit the new cases the office took on.

Another complication: Two of the public defenders had at some point represented Berry, and the third had overseen them and knew about Berry’s cases in great detail. According to rules of professional conduct for lawyers, it would be unethical for them to represent any of the 19 defendants. The public defender’s office knew about Berry’s role in the cases, though that fact had not yet been made public, and as a result, its lawyers began to pursue ways to get conflict-free counsel for the defendants. In the meantime, the attorneys didn’t work on the cases, and nothing moved forward.

Charles Keene, who still lives in LaSalle Parish, said in a phone conversation that being in jail was one of the low points in his life: “You have no clue how humanity has gotten,” he said. “You realize, Oh my God, there are the people you hear about on Cops.”

Derrick Carson, the lead public defender for the 28th Judicial District Court, sought funding from the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which oversees public defenders in the state, to bring in outside defense attorneys. Carson told me his request for more defense attorneys came at a time when his office, and public defender’s offices across Louisiana, already faced severe budget deficits: He had cut salaries, including his own, and asked for a rent abatement from his office’s landlord. The board said it did not have funding available.

While there would have been a substantial wait time anyway for the cases to be resolved, between the restriction of services and the infrequency of court, the conflict-of-interest problem made the wait even longer. All through 2015, Keene and the others waited in limbo, most of them in jail.

Over the past five years, criminal-justice advocacy groups have successfully campaigned to elect progressive prosecutors, reduce the use of money bail, and improve jail and prison conditions. But these reformers, as well as academics, have generally focused on big-city policing and jails. Think of the days-long protest, in February 2019, over the loss of heat at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Hundreds of people stood outside in the record freezing temperatures until the power came back on. Congressional representatives and candidates for president declared their support. The incident made national headlines. Yet, when 19 people in LaSalle Parish were arrested and detained without adequate representation—all for nonviolent crimes instigated by a paid informant—few outside the parish knew about it.

The state of rural criminal justice rarely gets reported. In these areas, prosecutors tend not to run on reform platforms. Activists demanding accountability, or asking for the release of people imprisoned for drug possession so they can get treatment in lieu of jail time, are fewer in number.

Yet since 2008, urban jail populations have shrunk dramatically, while rural ones continue to rise; the highest incarceration rates are now in rural counties, whereas 20 years ago, they were in urban ones. “This dynamic has profound national implications because it means that people in an enormous swath of the country are being left behind,” Christian Henrichson, research director for the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, told me.

Some of this can be attributed to the use of jails as a moneymaker for rural places with few other industries. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provide money for counties to build jails as a form of economic stimulus. Counties, in turn, build bigger jails. The space is used in part to house state or federal inmates in exchange for “rent.” Vera and other organizations have pointed out that jail construction isn’t a fail-safe path to economic development, especially because if jails close due to unconstitutionally poor conditions, the county is left footing the bill, which can bankrupt local governments.

But many of these rural jails house a large number of local defendants who are awaiting trial, as Keene was. According to Vera, while urban pretrial populations began to level off and then decline in the early 2000s, those populations kept growing in rural counties, eventually eclipsing urban ones. In 2013, rural counties had 265 pretrial detainees per 100,000 people, almost one-third higher than the urban rate.

In counties like LaSalle, this increase has to do with a pervasive tough-on-crime culture in law enforcement and prosecution. But it is also due in significant part to a shortage of resources—not enough funding for pretrial services, limited times when court is in session, and limited public defenders.

While it is well known that public defenders’ caseloads are untenably high in jurisdictions nationwide, prompting lawsuits, the situation is particularly dire in largely rural states such as Louisiana. These so-called legal deserts may have only one or two defense attorneys, who are usually near retirement with no one to take their place. In Mississippi, defendants routinely wait up to a year to even get assigned counsel. In Minnesota, counties can span hundreds of miles and court may sit only twice a month, requiring staff and lawyers to drive an hour each way.

Keene, while waiting in jail, was proactive in seeking his and his wife’s release. In September 2015, he wrote a letter to the court asking for a hearing to challenge the legitimacy of the charges, given the unusual nature of Berry’s purchase. He requested that they be allowed to appear without a lawyer, because their public defenders were overburdened with cases: “Our time with them is limited.” The court put his request for a hearing on pause, and like others among the 19 defendants, he was forced to put his life on hold.

A few days later, the prosecutor’s office officially released Berry’s identity as the informant. In January and March 2016, the public defender’s office filed motions to recuse itself from representing Keene and the defendants in the other cases related to Berry, due to conflict of interest.

Over several months in early 2016, attorneys from the MacArthur Justice Center (unrelated to the MacArthur Foundation, which funded reporting for this story), a criminal-justice advocacy organization, filed motions challenging the detention of Keene and some of the 19 others as an infringement of their constitutional rights. They argued they shouldn’t be kept in jail indefinitely without adequate representation simply because appropriate lawyers weren’t, and would perhaps never be, available.

These motions were not successful, but put pressure on the district attorney to resolve the situation. The judge didn’t rule on the public defender’s office’s motions to recuse itself, and the office continued not to work on the cases. However, in an uncommon arrangement, the district attorney offered all of the defendants plea deals for a single count of drug possession that would render some of them eligible for immediate release. The public defenders, in turn, agreed to convey this plea offer to the defendants, so long as the court granted each client access to independent counsel to advise them of their rights. Most of them took the deal.

Keene, however, wasn’t willing to plead guilty; he felt he was innocent. He waited until early 2017 for a trial. He told me he was represented by another lawyer from outside the parish: “They went and got a different lawyer; they did my case as legitimate as they could do.”

The trial court found him guilty and initially sentenced him to 25 years in prison, a sentence that seemed disproportionate enough that his attorney objected at the time of sentencing. On appeal, Keene’s appellate counsel—a new set of lawyers—argued that the punishment was excessive, and last year, Keene was resentenced to nine years of prison time. He has since been released on parole, thanks to good behavior, among other factors. But there’s no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen again. Louisiana is still facing a crisis in public-defense funding; the state legislature isn’t considering any sustainable funding vehicles. In LaSalle Parish, the sheriff continues to make large drug busts—almost 600 in the past 10 years, in a parish with a population of fewer than 5,000. He has been reelected twice and is seeking a fourth term that will begin this fall, based again on a platform of arresting drug dealers.

Keene said his whole experience has soured him on lawyers and judges. “They hurt people,” he told me, “and they aren’t hurting.”