Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) announced on Monday that they have begun furloughing employees in the face of an anticipated $800,000 budget shortfall stemming from loss of revenue that comes from court fees and traffic tickets. 

Money from court fees and traffic tickets account for about one-third of the office’s budget, according to its most recent annual audit. But with the courts closed due to coronavirus, and fewer traffic tickets being written following the Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay at home order, those funding sources have diminished. 

The furloughs will result in employees having their hours and pay cut between 10 and 30 percent based on salary, with higher salaried employees taking the larger cuts. Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the public defenders, said that the furloughs would affect all staff that were not supported by grants or outside funding — about 67 employees.

According to a press release, furloughs began on April 15th for the leadership and management teams at OPD and will start on May 1 for the rest of the staff.

The press release warns that the furloughs could delay court proceedings, possibly even when the court opens back up, and result in their clients sitting in jail unnecessarily “when they could have otherwise been released on bond or into various diversion programs.”

“Courts should be prepared for immediate delays due to the lack of representation,” the release reads. “Should furloughs continue once court resumes, court officials and stakeholders should expect reduced presence of OPD staff and continued delays.”

In addition to furloughs, OPD also announced that they would be eliminating their conflict panel contracts — given to outside attorneys to represent clients in cases that involve multiple defendants whose interests may be at odds, or if the office has another conflict of interest — as well as cutting experts and expert fees used in case preparation. 

“These two actions, coupled with the furloughs, could trigger a constitutional crisis and have devastating impacts on thousands of poor New Orleanians,” OPD warned.

For over a month the public defenders have been urging for the release of their clients from jail, as experts have warned of the danger and potentially disastrous consequences of coronavirus spreading behind bars. 

In that time, the jail population has dropped by hundreds, but the threat to those locked up persists. According to the Sheriff’s Office, as of last Friday there were 16 people in custody who had tested positive for the virus, and over 200 more had been tested and were awaiting results. 

“This could not happen at a worse time,” said Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton in the release. “With COVID-19 spreading throughout the jail, OPD’s advocacy is more important than ever to move our clients and keep the jail as small as possible….This will have serious ramifications. The inequities are stark and it is our poorest, most vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens who pay the price.”

Funding has long been a problem for the public defenders, who in recent years have been forced to cut staff, institute hiring freezes, and refuse cases. 

“OPD continues to call upon criminal legal system stakeholders, at the local and state level, to establish stable, adequate and equitable funding sources for public defenders,” the release read.  “Inadequate, inequitable and unreliable resources continue to compromise OPD’s ability to provide mandated legal services, brings higher costs in our criminal legal system, delays justice, and ultimately puts public safety at risk.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...