Criminal Justice

Chief public defender sounds off: Time to fix a ‘perverse’ system of justice

Huge disparities exist in how due process is financed at the city's criminal courts building.

Orleans Public Defender

Huge disparities exist in how due process is financed at the city's criminal courts building.

Funding for public defense in New Orleans (and throughout Louisiana) is inadequate, unreliable and unpredictable. And I am not the only one who thinks so.

In a 2006 report titled “An Assessment of the Immediate and Longer-Term Needs of the New Orleans Public Defender System,” the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance wrote, “It is imperative that a stable and adequate funding source be established for the [Orleans Public Defender’s Office.] Without that commitment, it will remain impossible to provide defendants with the representation to which they are constitutionally entitled.” In a follow-up report in 2010, the bureau wrote, “The OPD’s funding must be stable, dependable and adequate. … No one seems to know how much to expect from any source during the current year or in the future.”

In 2012, an independent evaluation commissioned by the Louisiana Public Defender Board said this: “Simply put, OPD is not and has never been on a stable revenue footing. Louisiana, unique to all other states, funds its indigent defense system primarily through local traffic tickets and other local fees and costs.”

Fines, fees and court costs are a part of criminal justice systems around the country, but Louisiana public defenders depend and rely on such costs to a dangerous degree. On average, two-thirds of public defender operating budgets are comprised of fines, fees and costs. Nationally, such revenues account for zero-to-10 percent of funding. While our entire criminal justice system relies heavily on fines, fees and costs, public defense is the most glaring example of how flawed this funding structure really is.

One need only look to the 2012 budget cycle for evidence of how unreliable and unpredictable public defender funding can be. In what was deemed “a bloodletting,” OPD had to immediately and drastically shrink its office when state reductions were implemented and fees and costs didn’t meet projections. Not surprisingly, it is hard to predict how many people will receive (and pay) traffic citations – OPD’s single largest source of local revenue. Further, once the fines are paid it is equally hard to predict how much of the money will actually make it to OPD. Since 2012, public defenders in parishes around the state have instituted cuts, service restrictions or both. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of Louisiana’s public defenders offices ran deficits in 2012.

The current funding structure also produces great disparity between public defenders and the rest of the criminal justice system. Other criminal justice agencies traditionally receive more local parish support than public defenders – reducing their reliance on fines, fees and costs. By contrast, in most places across Louisiana, public defenders receive no parish support. As a consequence, these great disparities persist. In 2013, New Orleanians will pay nearly $370 per capita to support the New Orleans Police Department, nearly $20 per capita for the District Attorney, but only about $2 per capita for public defense.

Louisiana needs to revisit our heavy dependence on the user-pay funding scheme currently supporting the public defender system. Relying so heavily on indigent clients, other defendants and their families to fund the operation of such an important part of our system of justice and public safety is a mistake. The New York Times was even more forceful in its opinion, calling our system “perverse.”

It is time for stakeholders and decision makers at the state and local level to explore additional and alternative funding sources for public defense. The state Legislature should take steps now toward the creation of an adequate, predictable and reliable system of funding — one that promotes parity. Failure to act leaves public defense vulnerable to cuts and restrictions, placing our justice system in jeopardy.


Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton

Derwyn Bunton is the Chief Defender of Orleans Parish. He can be reached by email at:

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  • Why don’t you TAX more of the businesses that sell alcohol? They tax gasoline for pollution. So why not tax MORE the alcohol and gambling as that is one of the initial and ongoing problem originators. From higher permit fees, to higher taxes on any alcoholic beverage. Same for cigarettes and cigars. But definitely tax any alcohol even more, especially during big EVENTS as that’s when even more trouble is caused and the need for outside police.

    Just look at all those Glorified “Ghetto Liquor Store” Gas Stations all over the city. Nothing but trouble….many are nuisance businesses, from trash, garbage, loud music coming and going. Old Bl?ck men sitting at the nearest tree next to the gas station drinking all day long.

    Definitely need more OUTSIDE auditing of alcohol sales as many of that is cash and not recorded.

  • Oh, forgot, Those who are pro-legalization saying, “TAX IT” in regards to weed.

    Well, it seems we have a problem on TAXING alcohol, don’t we? At first, those who said prohibition was stupid and that taxing was going to make the government rich, are now saying, “Hmm, if the beer gets taxed more for all the social problems it creates, the sales are going to go down, and less beer sold.”

    Aside, who said lowering the COST of drugs is going to reduce all the crime and murders?

    So, on one hand, those who said lower the cost and then say tax it, are contradicting themselves as the TAXES should be raise to cover the COSTS of all the social problems alcohol creates. So legalization says, “it will lower the costs and you can tax it?”

    Either way, some how, some way, someone is going to pay.

    So let’s correctly TAX BEER and ALCOHOL MORE. A LOT MORE, like at least DOUBLE, TRIPLE, 4x, 5x, 10x, 20x, whatever it takes to cover the costs of EBT, Section 8, SNAP, WIC, mental health services, 500 more police with generous pensions, you name it. More taxes on alcohol is the same as what the legalization crowd is advocating on drugs anyway.

  • UNO Ph.D. 1

    Mr. Bunton,

    maybe if you managed the money better you would have to whine about being under funded. You send lawyers to represent every defendant in every section of court until a private attorney tells you they have the case. You are not supposed to represent anyone but those declared indigent by the court and not until that point. So why do you waste money representing defendants before the court declares them indigent? Isn’t it a conflict of interest for your office to determine who’s indigent based on unverified information provided by the defendant? Since your budget is largely determine by the number of clients doesn’t that also Create a conflict?