Public defenders office in 'dire' situation, scrambles for funding

Public defenders office in 'dire' situation, scrambles for funding

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A $1 million deficit to fund attorneys for those who cannot afford one could cripple the Orleans Parish court system.

"This isn't make believe. This isn't hypothetical," Orleans Public Defender Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton said. "There are people that are losing their jobs, losing their housing. They are losing opportunities because the public defender cannot fulfill its obligation under the Constitution."

The office is facing the deficit after a $700,000 cut at the state level and less money from the city. Bunton said the office plans to furlough employees starting in October or November, increase the workload on others and hold a fundraiser next week to try and soften the blow.

Public defenders represent more than 80 percent of criminal cases in Orleans Parish. Bunton called his office's situation "dire." He said the money to represent all of those people is not there, and that could mean dropping charges against some accused criminals.

"If they go for prolonged periods of time without counsel, our Constitution says they have to be released. You can't hold them, no matter the offense," Bunton said.

The public defender's office is partially funded through the collection of traffic tickets in Orleans Parish and is expected to get $300,000 less this year. Bunton said if the deficit is not resolved in the short term, it's going to cost taxpayers in the long term to house people awaiting their day court.

"We are the only state in the entire country that funds district defenders through local fees, local court fees and that system really just doesn't work," Louisiana State Bar Association President Mark Cunningham said.

Orleans is not the only district hurting from the cuts.

"You're starting to see it up in Shreveport, as well as throughout the western part of the state. Lafayette is maybe fine for now, but everybody is really concerned about this as a long-term standpoint," Cunningham said.

Metropolitan Crime Commission president Rafael Goyeneche believes a hit like this will cause a ripple effect.

"Any time any component of the system falls out of balance it weakens the rest of the system," Goyeneche said. "If the public defender's office has to cut back on it's staffing, it will absolutely affect the rest of the criminal justice system."

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office said the city increased funding to public defenders by nearly $100,000 out of this year's budget and will look at ways in the 2016 budget to address the issue further. 
State legislatures are looking at laws to fix the issue during next year's session, according to Cunningham.

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