Public Defense Still Essential in Mayor Landrieu's 2014 Budget

Mayor Landrieu once again proved his commitment to a fair and balanced criminal justice system today with the continued funding of the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) in his 2014 budget. While the general appropriation is a near $150,000 decrease, the additional $232,000 appropriation for defense in racketeering cases will hopefully help stave off further private bar pro bono representation needs for the mayor's Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS). OPD's $940,000 appropriation remains significantly less than the NOPD, the Sheriff and the District Attorney.

"The mayor's continued support for OPD and public defense in New Orleans is another step toward a fair and just criminal justice system, and the additional GVRS appropriation is certainly a big part of that," said Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton. "However, the persistent resource disparity within the criminal justice system threatens an efficient, reliable court system and hinders our ability to keep up with the growing and complex demands our criminal justice system. Until OPD secures stable, reliable and adequate funding, we remain vulnerable to service restrictions."

OPD currently represents more than 80% of defendants in Criminal, Municipal and Traffic court. The implementation of sweeping multi-defendant indictments has brought court proceedings to a standstill as judges work to secure pro bono representation due to OPD's inadequate resources. Inconsistent and inadequate funding have always challenged OPD's operations, making the city's appropriation especially crucial to maintain efficient and effective representation in the face of increasing caseloads. When OPD cannot operate at full capacity, the entire criminal justice system falters, causing delays in justice for victims, defendants and the public.

Read More in our Press Release


OPD's Nzinga Hill Receives National NLADA Award

New Orleans, LA – The Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) are pleased to announce our own Nzinga Hill is the recipient of the 2013 National Legal Aid and Defender Association's (NLADA) Reginald Heber Smith Award. Given since the early 1960s, Hill is one of just two honorees nationwide to receive the "Reggie" award recognizing the dedication and outstanding achievements of civil or indigent defense attorneys. Hill and the other 2013 NLADA national awards winners will be recognized at the Annual Conference November 8 in Los Angeles.

Hill is the supervising attorney of OPD's Child in Need of Care (CINC) unit, advocating tirelessly in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court to reunite families. Her representation is unparalleled and her dedication to improve representation for parents in CINC cases is determined.

Read more in our Press Release.


Now Is the Time To Finish the Job on Criminal Justice Reform in New Orleans

Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton on recent criminal justice reports, suggested shifts in resource focus, protocol changes and the need for resource parity.

"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." (Jeremiah 8:20 King James Bible).

Eight years after Katrina, the need for criminal justice reform in New Orleans remains acute. New Orleans' criminal justice leaders and stakeholders must work intelligently and creatively to ensure justice and fairness within our courts and on our streets. With major and expensive consent decrees looming over the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office (OPSO), our city cannot afford to waste time recycling the failed and expensive policies of the past. As a community, we must continue to push forward in the right direction with criminal justice reform.

I disagree with a recent Court Watch NOLA report insofar as it declared a "Culture of Continuances" at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (CDC). CDC now has a larger proportion of serious and complex criminal cases. These cases take longer to investigate and prepare. A fact noted by the Metropolitan Crime Commission's 2012 Judicial Accountability Report. In this context, declaring a "Culture of Continuances" illustrated a lack of understanding of the system.

At the same time, court administration deserves scrutiny because the system can improve the fair and efficient movement of cases. Criminal justice leaders and stakeholders need to move forward, exploring better uses of technology, perhaps integrating court calendars and reaching out to other systems for ideas to promote fairness, justice and efficiency. Unnecessary delays do drive up costs. However, hasty court proceedings are even more costly and lead to shoddy work on all sides, creating more victims and less justice.


NY Times: Federal Oversight on Public Defense

The Justice Department recently signaled that it may be taking on a greater role in assuring the quality of indigent defense in state criminal systems. It filed a brief last month in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington against two towns for failing to provide adequate legal assistance for poor defendants.

The department's filing, reported byNPR, did not take a position on the merits of the plaintiffs' claim, but it starkly described what Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has called the "state of crisis" in public defender systems nationwide. If the Washington plaintiffs prevail, the government's brief said, the court should appoint an independent monitor to help ensure that the two towns provide all defendants with effective counsel, a constitutionally protected right.

Mr. Holder has talked often about indigent defense, but because systemic problems traditionally have been dealt with at the state level, the federal government has maintained a limited role. That may be changing. State public defenders represent the vast majority of criminal defendants across the country, but, as the brief explained, they remain at a "staggering disadvantage" because of the resources that go to law enforcement and prosecutors' offices.

The disadvantage may be nowhere more glaring than in New Orleans, where indigent people sit in jail uncharged, sometimes for months, waiting for a lawyer whose workload far exceeds any reasonable standard. Professional guidelines recommend that public defenders handle no more than 400 misdemeanor cases in a year, yet a 2009 report found that part-time public defenders in Orleans Parish handled the equivalent of 19,000 misdemeanor cases per attorney annually — which means an average of about seven minutes spent by a lawyer on each case.

This terrible system is hobbled by a perverse funding mechanism. Traffic fines and court fees paid by defendants who are convicted or plead guilty account for nearly half of the annual budget of the Orleans Public Defenders Office. This is an unpredictable revenue stream, and it may also pose a conflict of interest since public defenders end up representing many defendants whose fines support their salaries.

Read more at The New York Times.

OPD Symposium Discusses Mass Incarceration and Sentencing Reform

A Tulane Law School symposium Friday commemorated the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a right to counsel for indigent defendants with a daylong program that focused on the intersection of race, poverty and public defense.

The symposium, called "Gideon 50 Years Later in New Orleans" for the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, was held in conjunction with Orleans Public Defenders, used the anniversary to tackle the twin issues of mass incarceration and sentencing reform in Louisiana.

An afternoon panel featured former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten; 5th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Ricky Wicker; state Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie; Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc; Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana; and Cindy Chang, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times who authored a 2012 series on Louisiana's prisons for The Times-Picayune.

Even as Louisiana's overall crime rate has been in decline since 2007, LeBlanc said, it remains the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation, at 874 persons per 100,000 citizens.

"We've been a lock-'em-up state," LeBlanc said, "but lock 'em up and throw away the key is not the answer."

Read more at The Advocate.

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