DA Jason Williams at a press conference in 2021. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

In 2020, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance mandating that the city provide the Orleans Public Defenders Office with at least 85 percent of the funding that it gives to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office — which corresponds roughly to the proportion of criminal cases the public defenders handle in the city. 

The move, sponsored by then City Council President Jason Williams — who was on his way to an electoral victory to become DA —  appeared significant. Historically, the public defenders had only received a fraction of city funding that the DA received, and criminal justice advocates argued that the “parity” measure was necessary to stem the currents of mass incarceration in the city and reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

But it quickly became clear that the measure was mostly symbolic, without legal teeth. Every year the city budget is passed as an ordinance itself, and it would override the parity ordinance, regardless of what funding it provided to the two offices. 

Just months after the parity ordinance was passed, Cantrell released a budget proposal that ignored it altogether — funding the public defenders at just 28 percent of the DA’s office. The council ultimately passed a 2021 budget that increased that to 65 percent —  a significant bump that Williams and the public defenders touted it as a win — but still well short of the 85 percent mandated by the ordinance.

There was also a political dynamic at play. At the time the ordinance was passed, Jason Williams was City Council president, but he was running for DA on a “progressive” platform, courting the vote of criminal justice reform advocates in the city who have long pushed for more money for the public defenders. It was unclear what — if any — impact the parity ordinance would have on future budgeting decisions.  

But now, for the second year in a row, Cantrell has come close to adhering to the 85 percent parity mandate in her proposed budget for 2023. Under her proposal, both offices would get a significant increase in funding, with the public defenders receiving $7.6 million — up from $6.3 million — and the DA’s office receiving  $9.6 million — up from $7.3 million, and would end up funding the public defenders at around 80 percent of the DA’s office. 

Both offices say that the budget increases are necessary to handle a huge volume of cases, many of which are still moving through the system after COVID-19 shut down the courts and put jury trials on hold for the better part of two years, along with new serious cases coming in amid a rise in homicides and other violent crime in the city. 

At their budget presentation in front of the City Council earlier this month, the public defenders said that they are currently handling a staggering number of cases where their clients are facing long prison sentences — including around 250 cases where there is the possibility of a life-without-parole sentence. They said that based on a 2017 study evaluating the amount of hours individual lawyers should be spending on those cases, the office currently has less than half the staff capacity to handle them.

DA Jason Williams, who regularly shut down the requests for a budget increases from his predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro, has said that he needs around $2.5 million beyond what the Mayor has proposed in order to keep up with current caseloads. Williams said that he wants to hire 17 additional assistant district attorneys, give a cost of living adjustment to his staff, and create a homicide unit of “elite” prosecutors to handle all murder and manslaughter cases.

At his budget presentation, which was on the same day as the public defenders, Williams said that the homicide unit would consist of experienced prosecutors hired from across the country, and promised the council that the investment would have significant impacts on the violent crime rate in the city. 

“If you invest in an elite group of prosecutors, the next time I’m before this body, we will no longer be the murder capital of this country,” Williams said.

Several council members commit to parity

Some City Council members told The Lens that they are looking to increase funding for the DA’s office in the final budget, but that they also want to maintain parity.

A representative from Council President Helena Moreno’s office told The Lens that Moreno will introduce an amendment to fund the DA’s homicide unit, but will also offer one to increase funding for the public defenders. Councilman JP Morrell seems to be on the same page, telling The Lens that he is “committed to funding parity and to increasing funding to all of the various criminal justice partners that presented a justifiable reason for doing so.”

Councilman Joe Giarusso said that he believed funding for the homicide unit at the DA’s office should come through mid-year budget adjustments as the office is able to hire more personnel — which Mayor Cantrell’s administration has said will free up more funding throughout the year. He said either way, he supports parity between the two offices. 

Councilman Eugene Green said that he supports “the concept of parity” between public defenders and the DA “subject to the final language.” He also said he would like to see a special homicide unit at the DA’s office.  

Despite being instrumental in passing the parity ordinance when he was council president, when Williams went before the council to request more funding during his first budget hearing as DA last year, he said that parity wasn’t necessary

Echoing his predecessor, Cannizzaro, Williams said that the DAs office had different responsibilities than the public defenders. 

“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,” Williams said last year. 

The public defender’s office pushed back, noting that their caseload is determined by the DA’s office deciding to bring charges, and that the parity ordinance is “designed to respond to increased need for public defense at any point in the case process.” 

The DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Lens. In a statement, a spokesperson for the public defender office praised the council for their “commitment to parity.” 

“By ensuring an even playing field between prosecution and public defense, we make certain the rights of all New Orleanians are protected, and safeguard against wrongful conviction and the harms of injustice,” the statement read. 

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...