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Underfunded defense 

OPD budget depends on fines, fees and court costs

  "We continue to do more with less," said Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender for the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office, at his department's budget hearing in the City Council Chamber Oct. 28. While criminal justice and public safety make up the bulk of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's proposed 2015 budget, Bunton said his office — which is budgeted for $938,623 from the city's general fund in 2015 — continues to look for funding from grants and other agencies. The state pays 40 percent of its annual budget — more than the statewide average of 34 percent of each district's public defender's budget.

  Bunton said the city pays $364 per person for police protection, while it pays only $3 per person for public defense. The office handled 22,000 cases in 2013 and 18,000 so far in 2014, and Bunton said his office needs 80 attorneys to keep up with the caseload.

  It's up to the Louisiana Legislature to approve the state office budget increase. Louisiana State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr. said the state system is "chronically underfunded," and he anticipates statewide offices in 2016 will be "all in the red."

  Bunton also criticized the city's "user-pay system," in which a bulk of the public defender's office budget relies on fines, fees and court costs rather than a general fund. "Our reliance ... of levying on poor people going through the system, is unstable, unreliable and inadequate as a funding source for public defense," he said, summing it up: "If you got money, you don't stay in jail. If you don't, you stay in jail."

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