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.
Derwyn Bunton is the Chief Defender of Orleans Parish. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org