Councilman Jason Williams sponsored an ordinance calling for greater parity between the public defenders office and the DA. Monday’s budget proposal by Mayor LaToya Cantrell instead cut the defenders budget. If passed, the city’s appropriation will be less than 30 percent what it gives the DA (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

In August, the Orleans Public Defenders Office, criminal justice reform advocates — and even some candidates for Orleans Parish District Attorney — celebrated when the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that mandated the public defenders office receive 85 percent of funding that the DA’s office receives from the city. 

The law had potentially huge consequences for both offices and the criminal legal system in New Orleans as a whole.

In 2020, the city’s budget appropriation to the DA’s office was over three times that of the public defenders, and the DA’s office had twice the budget of the public defender’s office when accounting for other funding sources. The public defenders and other advocates have argued that the disparity in funding between the two offices led to lack of adequate representation for criminal defendants, and in turn, high rates of both incarceration and wrongful convictions. 

The public defenders called the passage of the ordinance a “historic moment for New Orleans.” 

But there were also questions about whether or not the ordinance would actually produce the desired results. Each year the budget is passed as a separate ordinance, and therefore the actual budget — regardless of the ratio of funding between the public defenders and DAs — would legally override the parity ordinance, without consequence. 

It seemed the real effect of the ordinance would come down to whether or not, at budget time, city officials would decide to follow the spirit of the law they had just passed.

On Monday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell provided her answer to that question: no.

In Cantrell’s proposed 2021 budget, released on Monday, rather than the 85 percent mandated by the August ordinance, the public defenders office would only receive around 28 percent of funding of the DA’s office — roughly the same proportion it received last year. 

In addition, under the proposal both the public defenders and the DAs office would have their budgets slashed.  The mayor’s proposed budget would allocate them $1,626,442 — down from more than $2 million this year. (The proposal released by the mayor did not have the specific allocation for the public defenders office in it, but the public defenders office said that it had received that number from city officials, and was later confirmed by a spokesperson for the city.)

The DA’s office would have its budget reduced from $7,178,029 to $5,742,423. A spokesperson for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro declined to comment.

In a statement, the Orleans Public Defenders Office said that they were “disappointed the Mayor’s proposed 2021 budget did not institute the funding parity ordinance that was unanimously approved by the City Council.” 

“The ordinance was an urgent statement by New Orleanians and the Council for equity and fairness – correcting decades of disparities in New Orleans,” the statement read. “The prolonged gap between OPD and the district attorney remains too great to ensure anything more than a crisis in justice.”

On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for City Hall said in a statement that due to the projected revenue shortfall that increasing the public defender budget would have required making cuts that they did not think were feasible.

“In developing the proposed budget, the deficit was so great and the cuts so deep, we could not in good faith propose additional funding for the Public Defender without cutting vital public safety services or requiring additional furlough days for our employees,” the statement read.

The statement also said that it was the state’s responsibility to adequately fund the public defenders office, and that the City Attorney’s Office had determined that “proposing a different budget level for the Public Defender would not be a violation of the enacted ordinance.”

City Council President Jason Williams, the sponsor of the parity ordinance, and a candidate for Orleans Parish DA in the Nov. 3 election, said in a statement that he remains “committed to the need of parity for the OPD,” and that the economic impacts of COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse not to provide equitable funding to the offices.  

“It’s true that agencies across the board are expecting and in some cases agreeing to budget cuts,” he said. “This economic crisis should not absolve the city from our commitments to a fair, equitable and just criminal legal system.”

He said he “will continue to press the case.”

The public defenders office warned that the “continued funding inequities threaten to dismantle families and destroy communities.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from a spokesperson at City Hall.

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...