Just three months ago, the New Orleans City Council unanimously and without debate passed a “parity ordinance” mandating that the city allocate at least 85 percent of the funding to the Orleans Public Defenders office as it does to the District Attorney’s Office. That proportion is equivalent to the amount of cases the public defender’s office estimates they handle in comparison to the DA.

But instead, on Thursday the City Council passed the 2021 city budget, and as part of it, they gave the public defenders only about 65 percent of the DA’s budget: about 3.4 million dollars.

Still, that was cast as a win for the public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates. While not achieving the degree of parity that the August ordinance called for, it allocates more money to the office than ever before. And it’s significantly more than the $1.6 million that Mayor LaToya Cantrell originally proposed. 

The public defenders office has long advocated for increased funding from the city, arguing that defenders’ caseloads are unmanageable, leading to an unjust situation at Criminal District Court in which indigent defendants don’t receive adequate representation. At times, they have refused cases due to lack of funding.

While the office also receives state funding, as well as some money from traffic tickets and court fees, they have argued that those funding sources are insufficient and unreliable. 

City Council President Jason Williams — who is also running for Orleans Parish District Attorney in the Dec. 5 runoff election — sponsored both the parity ordinance and the the budget amendment increasing funding for the public defenders office. He called it a “historic moment,” and said it was a collaborative effort with the mayor’s office — who initially ignored the parity ordinance altogether —to find the extra funding.

“The public defenders are literally on the front lines of this fight for our population which is often completely discounted, and whose voices are almost entirely taken away,” Williams said at Thursday’s council meeting. “And year after year, we have sort of just kicked the can down the road. And in the middle of one of the biggest funding crisis’ this city has ever seen, I’m proud of the work that we’ve been able to do with CAO Montaño to pull this off.”

“This was not easy,” Williams said. “But looking the other way and kicking the can down the road — it stops today.”

The mayor’s initial proposed budget which ignored the parity ordinance altogether cut both OPD and the DA’s office by 20 percent of their funding from last year and kept the same disparity in funding between them — with the public defenders receiving only about 28 percent of that of the DA’s office. 

But during budget hearings last week, several City Council members indicated that they were still committed to trying to achieve parity for the public defenders.

The amendment brought by Williams and passed unanimously on Thursday added $1.8 million dollars to the public defenders budget from what the mayor proposed. $300,000 of that money came from the DAs office. Another $1 million was pulled from the Sheriff’s Office’s budget — which had not been cut at all from last year in the mayor’s proposal — and $500,000 from the Clerk of Criminal Court.

Representatives from the public defender’s office were not immediately available for comment, but last week at a budget hearing Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said that he would use any increased funding to hire more lawyers, warning that they were “hemorrhaging lawyers” and looking at “dangerously high caseloads.”

While the 85 percent parity ordinance was legally binding, the budget was also passed as an ordinance, and thus overrode the parity ordinance.

 According to Thursday’s amendment, the fact that the budget doesn’t comply with the 85 percent parity ordinance is a result of large shortfalls from the coronavirus crisis. However, the city’s budget troubles were widely anticipated when the parity ordinance was passed in August — months into the pandemic.  

“The allocation of approximately 65% parity with the District Attorney’s budget reflected herein shall not rescind or amend the intent of [the parity ordinance], but rather is reflective of emergency cost-cutting measures necessitated by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and resulting fiscal crisis,” the amendment reads.

“Though we know we still have a bit more work to do because of the budget crisis created by Covid-19, this is a truly historic and inspiring day,” Williams said in a statement following the passage of the budget.

He said that public defender funding “is on par with our most basic necessities because of how many families are impacted, the fiscal strain that we will certainly suffer when thousands of new cases clog up our system when there are no lawyers to take them as well as the cost of lawsuits for wrongful convictions.”

By increasing funding to the public defenders, he said the council had “delivered true systemic reform that will serve the greater good of all of New Orleans.”

This story was updated with a statement from City Council President Jason Williams.

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...