NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The Orleans Public Defenders will begin refusing case assignments Tuesday due to what it said is a lack of resources, according to a news release from the office.
Appointment of new Class 2, serious felonies, including all charges facing the possibility of life without parole, will be refused at first appearance. In December, OPD sent a letter to criminal justice stakeholders saying that the office could no longer continue the current pace of representation under existing budgetary conditions.
"Our workload has now reached unmanageable levels resulting in a constitutional crisis," said Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton in December. "OPD's caseloads far exceed national caseload standards, and we simply don't have the capacity to ethically represent the most serious offenses."
If a defendant can't afford an attorney and the public defender refuses the case, then a judge will have to appoint a private lawyer to represent the accused.
OPD said it expects to refuse serious cases until caseloads decrease and adequate funding and resources are secured. Due to a hiring freeze, the workload of departing attorneys has been absorbed by existing staff. To date, OPD has eight attorneys to handle the most serious Class 2 cases, and those attorneys have about 40 cases each.
Although the increased appropriation from the mayor and City Council was enough to stave off mandatory furloughs, OPD said it still remains $600,000 short of budget projections. OPD blames the lack of funds on a $900,000 cut in state funding, but the public defenders office is also funded through traffic fines collected by NOPD.
"This is a statewide problem," said OPD Litigation Director Colin Reingold. "Where you've got some districts along the I-10 corridor that have sufficient funds because they're small in population but high in traffic tickets, then you have parishes without a lot of traffic revenue that are struggling."
Bunton said back in September that public safety is at risk.
"If (defendants) 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.
OPD represents nearly 85 percent of all defendants in Orleans Parish.
We reached out to Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office for comment, but have not gotten a response.