When the New Orleans City Council voted last week to provide $1.1 million in immediate funding (with a promise of an additional $600,000 later) to the Orleans Public Defenders office, the council recognized the indigent defenders office as a vital component of the local criminal justice system. That system isn't just about putting criminals behind bars. A bigger part of its mission is to ensure indigent defendants — who comprise 90 percent of those charged with crimes in New Orleans — are accorded their constitutional right to competent legal representation.
Public defender offices across America have been underfunded for decades, but the funding shortage has been particularly egregious in New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, the local office was primarily funded through traffic court fines and fees (roughly $1.2 million annually), with some supplemental funding from the state. By 2008, the office's budget had grown to nearly $5 million, but $1.7 million of that came from a federal grant that expired last year. Without additional money, the already strapped office will be in desperate shape.
Consider this comparison of the Orleans Public Defenders office to the Orleans District Attorney's office, an agency that has budgetary problems of its own:
• The DA's office has 92 attorneys who handle 15,000-16,000 cases in Criminal Court a year. The public defender's office has up to 34 attorneys who handle more than 50,000 cases a year in Criminal, Municipal, Traffic and Juvenile courts.
• The starting salary for a new assistant district attorney is $45,000 a year. A starting public defender earns $40,000 a year.
• The DA's annual budget is roughly $11 million, while the public defenders' budget is less than half that: approximately $5 million.
The public defenders office originally asked the council to replace the $1.7 million federal grant with city funding, but the council balked. As several council members correctly noted, indigent defense is the state's responsibility. "[The council] also recognizes the DA's office is a state responsibility," says Derwyn Bunton, the city's new chief public defender.
Criminal prosecution and indigent defense are mandated by state law. Although technically responsible for funding the offices, the state doesn't pay enough to cover their expenses. The city supplements the DA's budget annually ($5.7 million in the 2009 city operating budget), but until this year, the city has not supplemented the public defenders office. New Orleans has paid a price for that failure: Criminals were set free because public defenders couldn't provide representation, and innocent people sometimes languished in jail waiting for legal counsel.
The council still hopes the state will provide another $600,000 to fully fund the office. If the council and public defenders cannot convince lawmakers to appropriate that sum, the council has promised to come up with the difference. Bunton says his office and the council face an uphill battle with legislators, especially with the state expecting a $2 billion revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year.
Bunton appreciates the council funding his office this year, but whether the money comes from the state, the city, or a combination of the two, the office needs a reliable source of future funding. One option is for the city and state to take a more comprehensive approach to court funding, which reflects the post-Katrina consolidation lawmakers have mandated by 2014. By then, and possibly sooner, revenue for various criminal and civil justice system needs could come from a variety of sources, such as filing fees and fines, or the city's new and improved system for vehicle booting and towing parking violators. In all other parishes, the civil side of the system helps pay for the criminal side.
"We've got to find a stable source. We need a dedicated stream," Bunton says.
We agree. For too long, the city and the state have treated public defense as an afterthought instead of a vital part of the justice system. It's easy for politicians to campaign on a platform of being tough on crime, but saying you will stand up for those who can't afford legal defense doesn't win many votes. Nevertheless, the state and voters should recognize that justice requires vigorous prosecution of the guilty and competent legal representation for all. We hope the state won't drop the ball on this, but if it does, the city has no choice but to pick it up and fund the DA and public defenders.