- Published on 22 June 2012
OPD - then called the Orleans Indigent Defender Program (OIDP) - consisted of approximately 40 part-time adult felony lawyers, six part-time Traffic and Municipal Court lawyers and six part-time Juvenile Court lawyers. The office was funded largely by local fines and fees revenue, mostly from Traffic Court, with an approximate $2 million annual budget and governed by a local Indigent Defender Board selected by the Chief Criminal Court Judge.
In the wake of a full criminal justice system failure in New Orleans, the existing board was revamped by then Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, an advocate for reform. This new reform- oriented board reorganized OIDP with the assistance of Ronald Sullivan, Harvard Law Professor and former head of the Public Defender Service of Washington, DC serving as executive counsel. OIDP was transformed into a fully-functioning office with a full-time staff. National recruitment began for highly- qualified and dedicated attorneys, training followed and vital office functions - pay scales, supervisory structures, support positions - were established.
By 2006, attorneys were assigned to clients at first appearance instead of courtrooms, creating the current vertical representation structure. And with a new name, OPD was born.
OPD Under Construction
Operating under a constant threat of contempt, the reform board pushed on while the Criminal District Court attempted to remove and replace them, prompting legal action. By August 2007, legislative reform passed (Louisiana Public Defender Act or Act 307) eliminating the local boards and creating the Louisiana Public Defender Board, a state executive agency with regulatory authority over all public defense statewide. The legislation also gave the Chief District Defender all powers formerly held by the local board. Christine Lehmann became the first acting Chief Defender under Act 307.
2007-09 marked a time of intense struggle for OPD. Externally, the court continued to fight reform, and OPD was critically understaffed. Inadequate funding, excessive caseloads and the enormity of the post-Katrina backlog of cases proved constant hurdles for a full restructure.
Since 2009, OPD has established Mission and Vision Statements, created attorney practice structures, developed staff evaluation systems, institutionalized the Special Litigation Division, created a Leadership Team and a Management Team, and increased funding to the office by approximately $3 million.
While still critically underfunded, OPD has come a long way in just a few years. With approximately 50 full-time attorneys, court support, client service specialists, social workers, investigators and more, OPD provides meaningful representation to its clients and is the benchmark for indigent defense in Louisiana.