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

The New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday voted in favor of an ordinance that would require the city to give the Orleans Public Defenders at least 85 percent of the money it gives to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office — a proportion roughly equal to the number of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish that the public defenders estimate they represent.

Currently, the city is funding the public defenders at about 35 percent of the amount they fund the DA’s office. In the city’s 2020 budget, the District Attorney’s office was allocated $6.7 million, and the public defenders were given $2.3 million. Both offices also get money from the state, along with revenue from fines, fees, and grants.

The ordinance, which was proposed by City Council President Jason Williams — who is also a candidate for Orleans Parish District Attorney in the fall election — will go before the full city council on Thursday, according to Williams’ chief of staff. 

For years public defenders in New Orleans — and throughout the state — have argued that they are overworked and underfunded, making it impossible for them to provide adequate representation to their clients. 

“The first 300 years of the city were certainly not the most equitable,” Williams said on Monday. “And when you look at the fact we have not had parity in the courtroom at Criminal District Court, we have not had parity in the criminal justice system in New Orleans, we have not had justice in New Orleans. What we have to show for it is being the most incarcerated place on the planet, with the highest exoneration rate, with no public safety dividends to show for it.”

At the meeting, attorneys with the Orleans Public Defenders and the Innocence Project New Orleans advocated for the ordinance. They argued that the funding disparity between the public defenders and the DA’s office unfairy harms poor, mostly Black defendants in the city, and can lead to wrongful convictions. 

“This about the fact that when the city decides to fund something, it is making a value statement about what it cares about, and it is demonstrating who it cares about,” said Meg Garvey, staff attorney with OPD. “And today, we are asking that the city value protecting our citizens’ right to their own liberty and the right to defend themselves against the government as much as it values being able to punish them.”

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro did not attend the virtual meeting — he, nor anyone in the DA’s office was invited to attend, according to spokesperson Ken Daley.* But Daley said in an email the DA’s office has more responsibilities than the public defenders and that “any attempt to equate the agencies or their budgets is intended only to mislead the public into believing their duties are mirrored.”

Daley pointed to a number of divisions in the DA’s office that he said did not have counterparts in the public defender’s office, including an Appeals Division, a Juvenile Court Division, and a diversion program, among others. 

He said that the public defender’s office was “the equivalent of the Trials Division of the District Attorney’s office, not of the office as a whole.” When asked what the budget for the Trials Division was, Daley said he did not have a budget breakdown by division.

At the meeting, Garvey said that the DAs office has discretion in terms of controlling their caseload, and can prioritize which cases to take, while the public defenders lack any agency in the process. She suggested that the DAs office could decline to prosecute marijuana charges, for instance. 

Jee Park, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, an organization that investigates cases of convicted people who have claims of factual innocence, said that many of their clients were wrongfully convicted because the initial public defender representing them wasn’t able to adequately investigate the case and prove their client’s innocence. 

She said that much of the investigation that is done by her organization ideally would have been done at the start of a case by the defendant’s original attorney — but oftentimes that is impossible due to public defender’s high caseloads and lack of resources.  

“Think how much better it would be If the public defenders are equipped at the start of a case, on the front end — the moment their client gets arrested, the moment their client gets indicted — to fully investigate the state’s charges, the client’s alibi, the client’s defense, so the state’s proof can be fully and adequately challenged,” she said.

“For too long, New Orleanians are being convicted and sentenced to extremely long sentences — life sentences, virtual life sentences — without an ability to be able to defend themselves.”

The city is not the only funding source for the public defenders and the DA. They also both receive state funding, as well as direct revenue from various fines and fees.

The Orleans Public Defenders had a total revenue of $7.8 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year dollars, according to its most recent audit. Of that funding, $1.8 million came from the city, and $2.8 million came from the state.

The District Attorney’s Office, on the other hand, in 2018 had $14 million in revenue — including $3.7 million dollars from the state and $6.1 million from the city. 

Both offices have said they are strapped for cash in recent months due to the impacts of coronavirus. With courts closed, fines and fees that are levied throughout court proceedings have dropped off, cutting out a significant source of revenue. Each has responded by furloughing staff. 

Some council members, while supporting the ordinance, questioned whether the ordinance would discourage the Louisiana legislature from doing more to establish equitable and robust funding for public defense.

“How do we, as the city, make sure we’re not incentivizing the state not to give their share?” asked Councilmemeber Kristen Palmer at the meeting. 

The discussion at the criminal justice committee on Monday was part of a broader push by public defenders throughout the state to establish more robust and consistent funding for the public defender system. And at the legislature this year the state’s Public Defender Board was given a $7 million dollar increase in their budget. 

But according to advocates, that won’t come close to providing the necessary funds to adequately defend poor people accused of crimes in Louisiana.

“Each fiscal year begins for me with an absurdity almost,” said Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender at OPD, on Monday. “It’s like I’m shaking a magic eight ball while asking what resources I have available to represent my clients and my community. And the answers change from year to year. I get answers like, ‘Better not tell you now.’ ‘Cannot predict now.’ ‘Outlook not so good.’”

The ordinance is one of several in recent weeks that Councilmemeber Jason Williams has brought up before the committee he chairs which have been advocated for by the public defender’s office. Earlier this month, the committee discussed ordinances that would force the police to turn over body camera footage to defense attorney’s, and limit the situations in which police can make arrests for municipal charges.

Williams wasn’t the only one at the meeting who is running for something in November. Both Garvey and Bunton are running for judgeships — Garvey for municipal and traffic judge and Bunton for Criminal District Court judge.

Despite Cannizzaro’s apparent opposition to the bill, at least one other DA candidate in addition to Williams, Arthur Hunter, said he was in favor of the ordinance. 

“If Derwyn Bunton doesn’t have the lawyers to represent poor defendants, the system stops. And that’s going to hurt everyone — victims, witnesses, and defendant’s of course with their constitutional right to have counsel if they can’t afford it,” Hunter said. 

But Hunter also said that it was the state legislature’s responsibility, not the city’s, to adequately fund public defense.

Keva Landrum, another candidate for DA, did not take a position on the ordinance, but said in a statement that she believes “that all criminal justice agencies should be properly funded” and said that as DA she would “work with the City Council which has the sole authority for these budget allocations to ensure that this happens.”

A representative for Morris Reed, who is also running for DA, did not immediately respond to request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell. 

This story was updated after publication to include a statement from DA candidate Keva Landrum.

*Clarification: This story previously stated that DA Leon Cannizzaro did not attend the meeting. He did not. But following publication, a spokesman for the office informed The Lens that neither he nor anyone in his office was invited to participate. That information has been added.

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...