The New Orleans City Council voted to enact an ordinance on Thursday that will require the city to fund the Orleans Public Defenders at 85 percent of the amount that it allocates to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office — equal to the proportion of criminal cases the public defender’s estimate they handle in the city. The city currently gives the defenders about 35 percent of what it gives the DA. 

Advocates say the law will translate to more equity in the courtroom for defendants facing criminal charges in New Orleans. In a statement, the Orleans Public Defenders office said the vote was a “historic moment for New Orleans.” 

“This ordinance strikes a blow at the structural disparities infecting our entire system,” the statement read. ”Today sends a message that all New Orleanians are valued, not just the rich and well connected.”

If signed into law by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the ordinance would take effect in the 2021 budget year, which begins in January. 

But how exactly the city appropriations for the two offices will break down won’t be clear until the city presents its budget later on this year — including how binding the ordinance will actually be during that process, and whether or not the budget, which is passed as an ordinance itself, could potentially override the parity ordinance.

The ordinance — which was sponsored by City Council President and candidate in the upcoming fall election for District Attorney, Jason Williams — passed unanimously without debate among the council as part of the council’s consent agenda, which is usually made up of uncontroversial items that the council votes on in a group, rather than one by one. 

In 2020, the city budget allocated $2.3 million to the defenders, compared to $6.7 for the DA’s office. But both offices also receive funding from the state, as well as revenue from fines, court fees, and grants. Combined, in recent years the DA’s office has had about twice as much incoming revenue as the public defenders.

The Orleans Public Defenders office has been advocating for more equal funding from the city as a way to “close the resource gap between public defense and prosecution and level the playing field for people navigating the criminal legal system.” 

At a Criminal Justice Committee meeting earlier this week, attorneys from the office presented the ordinance, arguing that lack of funding and heavy caseloads can prevent them from sufficiently investigating cases and being able to present a robust defense.

Ken Daley, a spokesperson for DA Leon Cannizzaro, did not immediately respond to request for comment on the final passage of the ordinance, but told The Lens in an email on Monday that any attempt to equate the public defenders and the DA’s office budgets was an “attempt to mislead the public.” 

“The District Attorney’s office is responsible for maintaining numerous services and divisions that have no equivalent in the public defenders’ office,” he said, pointing to a number of divisions of the office that he said do not have counterparts in the public defender office — such as a Juvenile Court Division and an Appeals Division. 

But Cannizzaro won’t be around to navigate the shift in resources. He announced that he will retire at the end of the year instead of seeking a third term as DA. Instead, the office will be led by one of four candidates currently running for DA in the upcoming fall election — recently retired judges Keva Landrum and Arthur Hunter, former New Orleans NAACP president Morris Reed, and Council President Jason Williams, who sponsored the funding parity ordinance. 

Hunter has said he is in favor of the parity ordinance. Landrum did not take a position, but told The Lens that she believed “that all criminal justice agencies should be properly funded.” A spokesperson for Morris Reed did not immediately respond to request for comment.

As its sponsor, Council President Williams supported the measure, and at the committee meeting on Monday said funding “parity is absolutely required.”

“I would say that as a City Council member at-large, I would say that if I was district attorney, I would say that if I was a plumber, I would say that if I was a defendant at Criminal District Court,” Williams said. “And certainly every judge sees that from the bench, and should support it.”

But whether or not the ordinance will actually force the mayor and the City Council to give the mandated appropriations to the public defenders may be up for debate.

In a Thursday night statement, hours after passage, Williams said the ordinance “is binding and clearly expresses the Council’s legislative intent to pass a Budget ordinance consistent with the Parity mandate.”

But, he added that “as with any legislative act taken by the body, later inconsistent legislative action may invalidate the earlier and we may not bind future Councils absolutely.”

“That procedural reality exists in all action we take,” he said. “The action taken today does not interfere with the Charter granted authority of the Mayor to propose a budget to the council.”

The ordinance passed on Thursday is part of a broader push by public defenders in New Orleans and throughout the state for more equitable and stable funding. In particular, they are looking to move away from fines and fees as a source of their funding, which they argue is unstable and takes money out of the pockets of poor people who they are tasked to defend. 

Update: This article has been updated to include comments from Jason Williams regarding the enforceability of the ordinance.

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...