A Public Defender Problem in New Orleans - Pacific Standard

A Public Defender Problem in New Orleans

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A New Orleans judge orders the release of seven men from prison due to a lack of funds for public defenders.

By Julie Morse

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(Photo: Joe Gratz/Flickr)

Last week, seven male inmates were released from prison due to insufficient state funding for legal representation. New Orleans Judge Arthur Hunter ruled that the lack of funds for public defenders violated the Sixth Amendment, the right for the assistance of counsel, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. The decision to release seven prisoners because they weren’t provided with lawyers speaks to the alarming budget crisis in Louisiana. The budget deficit has hit the state’s public defenders particularly hard.

Historically, public defenders have been subject to overwhelming caseloads and low pay. In 2015, The lawyers working for theOrleans Public Defenders office—including just 31 staff attorneys—handled 22,000 cases. Extremely high case loads can have grim consequences. Last year, journalist Steven Hsieh highlighted for Pacific Standard the overwhelming number of people facing criminal charges who aren’t assigned public defenders. “The right to counsel is enshrined in the Constitution,” Hsieh wrote. “But the question of who exactly enjoys that right has been subject to more than a half century of arbitration.”

The decision to release seven prisoners speaks to the alarming budget crisis in Louisiana, and how it hits public defenders.

Although Hunter has ordered that the seven inmates be released, they remain in prison until the appeal hearing, which is scheduled for April 18. This is not Hunter’s first ruling of this nature. In 2006, he released many prisoners whose cases were delayed because of Hurricane Katrina. Back then, there were only four public defenders employed at the Orleans Public Defenders office, representing 85 percent of the people accused of crimes in New Orleans. According to a 2015 Washington Postop-ed penned by New Orleans public defender Tina Peng, the budget cuts mean that public defenders will have to work a total of four weeks without salary in order to avoid layoffs. Peng says that she handled 300 cases in 2014 alone.

Defendants who were not appointed public defenders have been pardoned before, but seldom to this extent. In 1998, Alabama native LaReed Shelton was accused of third degree assault. He wasn’t able to afford a lawyer and the state refrained from appointing him one. He was placed under a two-year probation, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court because Shelton wasn’t provided counsel. Similarly, in 1963, Florida resident Clarence Gideon, who was charged with breaking and entering, wasn’t given a lawyer because, at the time, Florida only appointed public defenders to individuals accused of capital offenses. The judge ruled in Gideon’s favor, however, saying any person “cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

Last week’s ruling in New Orleans is also a testament to Louisiana’s budget woes. The Louisiana Public Defender Board is currently waiting to hear if its budget will be sliced by 61 percent by the state, which is itself facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit. Back in March, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender said that their office will stop taking on new cases by July if sufficient funding can’t be restored. Last spring, their office announced a hiring freeze due to budget cuts. According to theTimes-Picayune, 33 of the 42 public defender offices in the state have been forced to decrease their services.

The appeal hearing on April 18 might turn the criminal justice system on its head. If Louisiana and other states aren’t able to overhaul serious budget reform, Hunter’s ruling may be setting a lasting precedent.

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