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The life of a New Orleans public defender 

New Orleans public defenders face low pay, punishing caseloads and, now, uncertain funding. Is the Sixth Amendment, the right to legal counsel, becoming endangered in this city?

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Orleans Public Defender Chant'a Parker has already been in her office an hour when she receives an 8:30 a.m. call from Armon Mosadegh, one of the 135 clients she's currently serving. Mosadegh, 19, has been in Orleans Parish Prison for 29 days for a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. ("It was nothing but a little roach," Parker says.) But Mosadegh doesn't have the $50 to make bond, so there's little she can do.

  "You still have 16 days," Parker tells her client. "I know that sucks,"

  She is referring to the 45 days the district attorney's office has to formally charge a defendant for a misdemeanor, or else release him, which is known as a 701 release. Parker originally tried and failed to get Mosadegh released on his own recognizance. Later that day, Parker will call the DA's office to see if they'll accept the charges so Mosadegh can be arraigned, get a trial date and be released. If that strategy fails as well, Mosadegh will have to wait out the 16 days and then Parker can file for a 701 release.

  This is the kind of case with which Parker is presented all too often: minor drug violations that often leave indigent defendants in OPP, clogging the already-stressed legal system. Parker, 27, doesn't seem harried, but the pressure on her is heavy and constant. Each day, Parker sees her share of humanity, much of it poor and in desperate need of legal help. Orleans Parish public defenders are trying to keep their heads above water, but individual caseloads are way beyond any reasonable expectations.

  Now the state wants these public defense attorneys to do it for even less, but that could prove impossible in Orleans Parish's fragile criminal justice system.

  As she explains the case, Parker sits in a cluttered office of mismatched furniture she shares with three other public defenders. The room has a temporary feel, with each lawyer allowed just the basics: a chair, a desk, a phone, a laptop and a file cabinet. Parker has personalized her space with two posters, one of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of Thurgood Marshall — the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice — bearing the quotation: "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow human beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."

  A native of Savannah, Ga., Parker graduated from New York University Law School in 2006. She was hired by a Manhattan law firm, where she worked 80-hour weeks and felt unfulfilled. In early 2007, one of Parker's former law professors suggested she apply to the public defender office in New Orleans.

  "I felt my skills and what I could do weren't being utilized," Parker says. "Because of who I am, a black woman from the South, I felt I could relate to clients and they could relate to me."

  By accepting a position in New Orleans, Parker's salary went from $170,000 per year to $40,000. She regularly puts in 12-hour days, and with 135 current clients, she uses weekends to catch up on paperwork. She often goes to crime scenes and interviews witnesses as well. She says 75 to 80 percent of her cases involve possession of small amounts of marijuana. According to a 2007 report from the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization concerned with prison reform, New Orleans has the nation's third-highest rate of drug-related incarceration.

  Parker laughs when asked if she thinks such cases should be brought before a judge and require jail time: "No. They don't need to be here. They're working people, working in hotels and businesses."

The Orleans Public Defender office provides legal representation to 90 percent of defendants in the city with a staff and budget less than half that of the DA's office. With state budget cuts looming, local public defenders, who handle more than 50,000 cases a year in New Orleans, may no longer be able to competently defend the poor.

  On this day, Parker will spend most of her morning in Section C of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, presided over by Judge Ben Willard. Typically, public defenders follow their clients to whatever section their case has been allotted. Defenders Lance Unglesby and Powell Miller flit in and out of Section C, checking where their cases are on the docket, and then returning to clients in other sections. David Pipes, an assistant DA, is already in Section C when Parker arrives. She talks with him about cases on the morning's docket. Unlike public defenders, who are trying to keep up with clients in several courtrooms at once, DAs like Pipes are assigned to specific sections and thus are always where they need to be.

  It's not the only advantage the DA's office has over public defenders. The Orleans Parish District Attorney's office has an annual budget of approximately $12.5 million, with 92 attorneys on staff and a total of 200 employees — including 18 investigators and six social workers. The DA covers Criminal and Juvenile courts, receiving approximately 15,000 cases a year from the New Orleans Police Department. Of those, the office accepts roughly 7,200 for prosecution. Compare those numbers to the public defenders' office, which covers cases in Criminal, Municipal, Traffic and Juvenile courts and handles 50,000 cases a year on a budget of $5.4 million. The office has 42 attorneys among 77 total employees, including eight investigators and two social workers.

click to enlarge Attorney Chant'a Parker works in cramped and cluttered quarters at - the Orleans Parish Public Defenders' Office, where she is currently - handling 135 cases. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Attorney Chant'a Parker works in cramped and cluttered quarters at the Orleans Parish Public Defenders' Office, where she is currently handling 135 cases.

  Prosecution also pays better than defense in Orleans Parish. The starting salary for an assistant DA is $45,000 a year, while a beginning public defender like Parker receives a salary of $40,000.

  Of the 14 cases on the Section C docket this morning, eight are drug related. Judge Willard seems intent on solving problems rather than jailing defendants. One of Parker's clients, Eric Darby, is charged with a variety of misdemeanors involving trespass and the attempted theft of an air-conditioning unit. He has spent the past two weeks in jail for missing a court appearance, but Willard wants Darby to return to work so he can pay $250 in restitution to the victim. Darby is released with a warning.

  "We're not negotiating," Willard says. "You find it, all right?"

  Parker finishes her Section C caseload by 10:30 a.m. and heads to Section E, where Unglesby is giving his closing argument in an armed robbery case. As Parker listens, Unglesby reminds the jury that the burden of proof lies with the DA, and if any part of the prosecution's case doesn't ring true — or, as he puts it, is like "rotten shrimp in a gumbo" — then the entire case falls apart.

  Bad ingredients also affect how public defense is funded in Louisiana. There is a mixture of funding resources from the city and state, but the main source isn't consistent from year to year, making planning for the office difficult and annual operations uncertain. Even though the state mandates indigent defense — and the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel — Louisiana is the only state that doesn't fund the majority of its indigent defense costs through state and local budgets. Instead, most of the money comes from court costs: mostly traffics fees and fines, which can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

  "One year it can be $1 million and another year it can be $1.5 million," says Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender for Orleans Parish.

DESPITE THE FUNDING INCONSISTENCIES, Bunton says public defense has improved dramatically in New Orleans in the last two years. Before Hurricane Katrina, public defenders served part time and could have private practices, which most did. There was no quality control in hiring. "They took all comers," Bunton says.

  While most of New Orleans' criminal justice system was in a shambles after the levee failures, the mess was particularly egregious in the arena of public defense. With little money coming in from traffic tickets, the Orleans Indigent Defense Board, which oversaw the program at the time, was forced to lay off 34 of its 41 part-time attorneys. Recognizing that defendants weren't receiving adequate legal representation, Criminal Court Judges Arthur Hunter and Calvin Johnson temporarily suspended prosecution of indigent defendants in their courtrooms in February 2006.

  That triggered investigations by the Louisiana State Bar Association (LSBA), the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which in turn led to the creation of a new indigent board. The new board adopted many of the recommendations that came out of those investigations. Public defenders now have to work full time and cannot have outside practices. The office also has more attorneys and support staff. The LSBA raised money to hire additional attorneys and replace ruined equipment, and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco doubled the amount of money Louisiana allocated for public defense statewide — to $20 million.

  While the reforms have helped, the local public defenders' office continues to rely on court fees and fines as its primary funding source and still has too little money and too few employees. According to the DOJ report, the office needs a budget of $8.2 million and a staff of 124, including 70 attorneys, 10 investigators and three client service specialists, to represent its clients adequately. Ironically, the office's shortcomings actually have made it a magnet for young lawyers like Parker, who joined the office in May 2008, looking for fast-tracked experience in public-interest law.

  Parker says one of her motivations for moving to New Orleans was to gain trial experience. She has brought four cases to trial thus far and should try many more before long. The Louisiana Public Defender Board, which provides state funding and advises local defender offices (the state disbanded local defender boards in August 2007), sets annual caseload standards for public defenders at 150-200 for noncapital felonies and 400-450 for misdemeanor cases. Bunton, who became the chief defender in early January, doesn't know the average annual caseload for his lawyers, but he says it's too high.

  "We had an attorney [last year] who blew through 500 cases in a year, most of them felonies," Bunton says. "You can't confidently represent these folks [with that kind of caseload]."

  Bunton attributes some of his office's caseload problems to the New Orleans Police Department. Instead of taking suspects into custody for minor violations, such as drug possession, he thinks the police should issue summonses or citations. Sometimes whether a suspect goes to jail depends on his age. If a juvenile is taken in for smoking pot on a street corner, Bunton says, cops will call the parents to come pick up their child. Not so if the suspect is an adult. "If you're that same person on the corner and you're 17 years or older, you're going to do at least 24 hours in OPP," Bunton says.

click to enlarge Parker spends a lot of her time at Orleans Parish Criminal District - Court, where she shuttles between several courtrooms every day to keep - up with her clients' cases. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Parker spends a lot of her time at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, where she shuttles between several courtrooms every day to keep up with her clients' cases.

  NOPD spokesman Bob Young says New Orleans doesn't have a city ordinance dealing with small narcotics violations. For that reason, he says, every narcotics violation has to go to state court — and summonses can't be issued for state court. The police have no choice but to arrest drug violators because officers can only issue summonses for municipal charges.

  "I know of no state law which forces police to take people into custody for minor violations, whether those violations be state or municipal," Bunton responds.

UNGLESBY IS STILL ADDRESSING THE JURY when Parker goes to check the status of one of her clients, who is being held in OPP on a drug paraphernalia charge. Using the court's database, Parker has calculated that her client (who asked to remain anonymous) has been in OPP for 40 days. She conferred with the DA and the judge and negotiated a sentence of 40 days; that meant her client could be released for time served. But when Parker goes to get the man out of jail, a deputy tells her the court's database is wrong; Parker's client hasn't yet served 40 days. She goes back to the judge and wins a shorter sentence of 20 days for her client, who then is released from OPP.

  Conflicting computer data is frustrating, but the ongoing threat to funding for the Orleans Public Defenders' office is alarming. A $1.7 million federal grant that boosted the office's 2008 budget to more than $5 million has run out. For the first time in city history, the New Orleans City Council put $1.1 million in the 2009 budget for public defense. Council members also agreed to lobby the state Legislature for another $600,000 to make up the budget shortfall. Unfortunately, the state is facing a budget deficit of its own, and it won't be easy to get additional funds. Bunton says his office has already received $1.2 million from the state for 2009, but he hopes to get another $1.2 million.

  "That won't happen. I don't think it can," says Jean Faria, who heads up the Louisiana Public Defender Board. That board oversees state funding to public defender offices throughout Louisiana. Faria says the state has already cut $1.4 million from her $29 million budget for the current fiscal year, and the Jindal administration is requesting another $7 million cut for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Faria says that would be disastrous.

  "I run around like Chicken Little, and I keep telling everybody you really need to understand, in some places there are no cash reserves," Faria says. "They have nothing. If we don't give them the money to operate their system, then it will come to a grinding halt."

  Bunton is equally blunt, adding that without adequate state funding his office will lose 20 attorneys — and the criminal justice system in New Orleans will face another breakdown like that of 2006. What makes this budget crunch even tighter is the recession; public defense budgets nationwide are being slashed, which means federal assistance could be hard to come by.

  But Bunton does hold out some hope. He thinks new DA Leon Cannizzaro is more interested in prosecuting violent criminals and chronic offenders than small-time drug users whose convictions will make his statistics look good. Focusing on major crimes and hardened criminals will take more cooperation between the police, the jail, the DA and public defenders. It's a strange alliance, Bunton admits, given the fact that three of those four agencies are focused on keeping people in jail and not on getting them out. He likens it to being invited to a high school party, but no one wants you there.

  "There's the cool kids — and then there's us," Bunton says.

  Parker says she occasionally worries about the office's budget but is more concerned with the larger picture of how public defense will operate in New Orleans.

  "There's always a small thing in the back of my mind: 'Will this office be here (in a year)?'" she says.

click to enlarge cover_story-1.jpg
click to enlarge Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton stands in front of the building - that houses his offices on Tulane Avenue. Although his budget is half - that of the DA's office and each Orleans Parish public defender gets - only the basics of a desk, chair, telephone, laptop and file cabinet, - his team handles more than 50,000 cases a year. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton stands in front of the building that houses his offices on Tulane Avenue. Although his budget is half that of the DA's office and each Orleans Parish public defender gets only the basics of a desk, chair, telephone, laptop and file cabinet, his team handles more than 50,000 cases a year.
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