NEW ORLEANS — An Orleans Parish judge ordered the release of seven indigent defendants last week because of the Public Defenders Office's inability to adequately represent them; however, the release was stayed pending appeal.
This ruling, which affirms the defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights, comes as no surprise to the under-financed, under-resourced indigent defense attorneys whose office stopped taking on new cases in January.
“You can only prosecute as fast as you can defend,” Lindsey Hortenstine, the communications director at the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, told the Louisiana Record. “If there is no defense, the system halts.”
The Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, like those across the state, has seen significant budget cuts in recent years. Yet even with a slightly increased budget from the city of New Orleans, in an attempt to offset state funding, the office has remained in a hiring freeze since last summer. These restraints sit atop a pending lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hortenstine said settlement talks are underway; however; it doesn’t look promising primarily because of the strenuous budgetary structure of the office. Currently, two-thirds of the office’s budget is funded from government fines and fees.
“We rely so significantly more on fines and fees as compared to the rest of the country," Hortenstine said. "We are in fact the only state that relies so heavily on fines and fees. Beyond funding public defense, and the entire criminal justice system on the backs of the poorest people and the ones actually within the system, (the budget structure) creates an unstable, unreliable and unpredictable funding mechanism. There is no way to predictably and reliably budget each year, or really month-to-month, when your budget depends on how many traffic tickets are written or how many people plead guilty.”
In fact, what funds are received directly from the state government are significantly disproportionate across the justice system, so much that Derwyn Bunton, chief of the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, wrote a New York Times op-ed, deploring and defending the unconstitutional actions his office was forced to make. According to Bunton, “Louisiana spends nearly $3.5 billion a year to investigate, arrest, prosecute, adjudicate and incarcerate its citizens. Less than 2 percent of that is spent on legal representation for the poor.”
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) in Washington, DC, confirmed that this isn’t a uniquely Louisiana budgetary allocation. Nationally, it is common for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to be better resourced, comparatively.
“The scales of justice are tilted such that it is not for people who come into the justice system facing charges,” Schindler said to the Louisiana Record.
Schindler, who was a public defender in Baltimore before joining JPI, related this indigent defense crisis in Louisiana to the broader faults of the country’s criminal justice system that emphasizes “extraordinary spending on the most expensive, most ineffective amounts of spending on incarceration.”
This is truer nowhere else than in Louisiana, which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, has the nation’s highest incarceration rate and is often noted as the prison capital of the world, as reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Although recent statistics show that Louisiana has seen 3,000 fewer inmates since 2012, massive statewide budget cuts, the bulk of which haven’t yet been declared, will only continue to cripple the public defenders' office, which serves a city demographic that is 85 percent poor and indigent.
For Orleans public defenders, for the prosecutors, for the seven defendants and even for the public, “whichever side of the fence you sit on, this isn’t a good situation,” Hortenstine confessed. “It means that innocent people will sit in jail while potential evidence goes away and their defense crumbles; it means mistakes happen, and it means that justice doesn’t get served.”