OPD Implements Restriction of Services as Funding Drops

logo hi resNew Orleans – Constitutionally-required legal representation is once again in jeopardy in New Orleans due to decreased revenue and budget shortfalls for the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD). Last week, Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton alerted criminal justice stakeholders that OPD was again short of necessary funding due to the continued decline of revenue both locally and at the state level.

Locally-generated statutory revenue for 2015 is short of projections by more than $300,000. Additionally, the Louisiana Public Defender Board is reducing OPD’s state-appropriated funding by approximately $700,000 in FY2016 – the result of an expanding state crisis in public defense funding. In short, Louisiana’s user-pay criminal justice system, widely and disproportionately dependent on fines and fees, is inadequate, unpredictable and unreliable, and hinders OPD’s ability to keep up with the growing demands of our criminal justice system.

“Unless something drastic happens in the near future, there are tough times ahead for the implementation of justice in New Orleans,” said Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton. “Until we establish an adequate, stable and reliable structure of funding, these crises will continue to happen, not just in New Orleans, but across Louisiana.”

While the Restriction of Services Plan this year will not be as drastic as 2012, it will cause serious delays in the courts and potential constitutional crises for our criminal justice system if no solution is reached. Shortages in attorney resources and hiring freezes – in an already under-staffed office – are certain to raise caseloads, slowing case processing time, affecting the quality of service and jeopardizing the integrity of court proceedings. Criminal justice stakeholders should begin to feel the effects of the ROS in the fall of 2015 as attorney caseloads rise and contracted conflict representation is no longer available.

OPD remains critically under-resourced, and far below parity as compared to other criminal justice entities. Despite representing nearly 85% of all defendants in Orleans Parish, OPD’s budget remains half the size of the district attorney’s, with one-sixth the city appropriation.

Louisiana’s user-pay system and continued budget cuts from the state is compounding a growing state funding crisis. Inadequate, unstable and unreliable funding and resources continues to compromise OPD’s ability to provide mandated legal services, brings higher costs in our criminal justice system, delays justice, and ultimately puts public safety at risk.

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