Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Public Defenders Carrying a Heavy Load

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 10:50 PM

Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton says that some of his staff lawyers, particularly those that defend clients charged with higher felony crimes including rape and murder, are so overloaded with clients that he will have to stop assigning cases to them.

“Some of these lawyers will simply become inactive, which means we’ll have fewer lawyers to take cases,” Bunton says.

That does not mean the public defender’s office will stop accepting new murder and rape cases. In the short term, Bunton will promote some of his lower level staff to cover the defenses of more serious charges. He will also hire lawyers from the office’s conflict panel, which is used when there is a conflict in a case such as multiple defendants on one charge or case overload, as well as asking local lawyers to take cases pro bono.

Bunton says one of his attorneys has closed 400 felony cases this year, which the chief defender says is nearly three times the national standard of 150 cases. Due to budget constraints — the New Orleans City Council cut a $500,000 in funding that it gave to the public defenders for the first time last year — Bunton can’t hire any new attorneys even though his office is trying more cases. The public defenders’ office operates on a budget of $5.2 million with $2.7 million coming from the state, and the rest is generated through court fees and fines.

According to a Metropolitan Crime Commission report for the first six months of 2009, there were about 2,000 more arrests in Orleans Parish than in 2008, and the district attorney’s office accepted 1,006 more cases. Bunton says the criminal justice system is performing more effectively and attributes the rising figures to “competent leadership” and incremental increases in the 2009 budgets for the DA and the public defenders.

“You’ve got dividends and to all of a sudden, given those results, start messing with that?” Bunton asks. “Us and trash pickup are really the only successful policy areas for the city.”

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter says he has told Bunton that he needs to reduce the excessive caseloads for his staff and the conflict panel.

“If he doesn’t comply with it, I will have no choice but to file a complaint with the (Louisiana) bar association,” Hunter says.

Hunter points out that it is the state’s responsibility to pay for public defense, and not the city. He says the state has failed for a number of years to provide adequate funding for indigent defense, and that this is having a dangerous effect on the city’s criminal justice system.

“Something has to be done,” Hunter says. “The public defenders’ office is as much a part of the criminal justice system as the courts, the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office. If one doesn’t work, it affects the other agencies.”

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