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

When New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell released her proposed 2022 budget last month, the Orleans Public Defenders office celebrated it because the proposal nearly doubled their city allocation from this year, from $3.4 million to nearly $6 million. It also provided, for the first time, “parity” between OPD funding and funding given to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, with whom public defenders face off in court every day. 

But on Wednesday, the third day of budget hearings in front of the New Orleans City Council on Wednesday, a former councilmember — and sponsor of a 2020 ordinance designed to guarantee parity between the offices— lobbied to tilt the funding scales back in favor of prosecutors. The former councilmember is now the Orleans Parish District Attorney. 

DA Jason Williams on Wednesday asked for several million dollars of additional funding above Cantrell’s proposed budget for his office — which he suggested he should receive even if it means the Orleans Public Defenders won’t receive the same increase.

That would go against the parity law that then-Councilman Williams fought for last year. The law requires the Orleans Public Defenders to receive 85 percent of the city-allocated funding given to the District Attorney’s Office — which they estimate is the percentage of criminal cases the office is responsible for defending. 

When the council passed the ordinance in August 2020, Williams — months away from an election where he was running on a progressive platform — said parity between the two offices was “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,” he said at the time.

But on Wednesday, Williams indicated to the council that because his office has different responsibilities than the public defenders, the two budgets couldn’t be compared “apples to apples” — echoing arguments against parity made by Williams’ predecessor and frequent political foil during the 2020 DA election campaign, Leon Cannizzaro.  A spokesperson for Cannizzaro said the ordinance was “intended only to mislead the public into believing their duties are mirrored.”

“The District Attorney’s office is responsible for maintaining numerous services and divisions that have no equivalent in the public defenders’ office,” he said. 

After the parity ordinance passed, it quickly became clear that the measure did not have any teeth. Because the budget is also passed as an ordinance, it carried no more legal weight than the parity law — and in fact would override it — with no legal consequences if it did not provide the mandated funding ratio.

Initially, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s proposed 2021 budget ignored the ordinance altogether — slashing city funding to both the DA’s office and the public defenders by 20 percent, and keeping the funding ratio between them the same.

Ultimately, though, an amendment put forward by Williams brought city funding to the defenders’ office to around 65 percent of the city funding to the DA’s office by pulling funding from other departments. At $3.4 million, it was the most money the office had ever received from the city  — nearly doubling the amount they had received previously.

This year, as her administration was preparing its proposed 2022 budget, Cantrell made parity a priority. She proposed nearly $6 million in funding for the public defenders — approximately 85 percent of the $7 million she is proposing for the DA’s office. 

But on Wednesday, Williams told the council that he needs more money to hire new trial attorneys and to fund a cold case unit, among other priorities. He also asked for more than $1 million to pay for civil lawsuit settlements, including $120,000 in a lawsuit he recently settled over the use of fake subpoenas by prosecutors working for his predecessor. 

Williams also praised the increased funding for the public defenders office, which he said has been “woefully underfunded.” But, when asked by Councilman Jay Banks whether or not he thought the City Council should then also increase funding to the public defender’s office, he said that the offices had different responsibilities. 

“Are you going to aske the Orleans Public Defender’s office to engage in cold case work that involves decades old sex crimes and murder cases?” Williams said. “I don’t think so…There are certain things that the Orleans Public Defender’s office does that does not match apples for apples with what the district attorney’s office does.”

If his office receives the money, it would again diminish the ratio of city funding to the public defenders to about 65 percent of the DA’s office.

Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defender’s, disputed that assessment in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Any time there is work by the district attorney that brings more people and cases into the criminal legal system, whether it be through cold case investigations or multi-defendant indictments or the like, there will always be additional need for constitutional representation,” Hortenstine said. “OPD has no control over its caseload, that is solely up to the district attorney. Funding parity is designed to respond to increased need for public defense at any point in the case process.”

She also said that the public defenders are responsible for thousands of municipal code violation cases in New Orleans municipal court that the city attorney, not the DA’s office, prosecutes. 

Budget hearings continue into next week. The City Council must pass a final city budget by Dec. 1. 

Nicholas 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...