Judge's order to release inmates highlights budget issues in New Orleans

By Emma Gallimore | May 1, 2016

NEW ORLEANS – A Orleans Parish judge has ordered the release of seven indigent defendants because the public defenders' office can’t afford to defend them.

NEW ORLEANS – A Orleans Parish judge has ordered the release of seven indigent defendants because the public defenders' office can’t afford to defend them.

The inmates in question are seven men facing charges of rape, armed robbery and murder. Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter ordered their release after reviewing the status of the state and local public defenders' offices.

The order has been stayed pending an appeal; and some insiders, including Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Assistant District Attorney David Pipes, have argued that the order was premature. They insist that the judge did not adequately investigate whether or not additional funds were needed in these specific cases.

“One would hope that the justice system would act in a way and be resourced in a way, that all parties involved would have their rights protected,” Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, told the Louisiana Record. “What’s happening in New Orleans is an extreme example of an issue that we have in places across the country, which is under-resourced defense, whether that be thorough public defenders' offices or others."

The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution affirms the right to council for anyone charged with a crime. Indigent defendants, those who do not have the funds to pay for their own defense, are provided with a lawyer by the state.

“It’s important to recognize that what we’re talking about here are constitutionally required functions that need to be provided for the citizens of New Orleans,” Schindler said. “When that doesn’t happen, I think that all of us need to be concerned.”

The shortage of funds, and consequently, of lawyers to handle indigent cases has already resulted in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Orleans Parish public defenders’ office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board. The ACLU said that waiting months for representation can force inmates to choose between spending extra time in jail while they wait for council, or handling bail and plea negotiations without an attorney.

Much of the blame can be placed on the funding structure currently in place, Schindler said. The bulk of the funding comes from traffic tickets and other fines and fees collected from defendants.

“When you have an important government function that is depending on a funding flow that is subject to variables and can go up and down, that’s a problem,” Schindler said. “I don’t think it’s a reasonable way to fund justice system functions.”

Other states and municipalities appropriate money as part of their yearly budget planning, which creates a more stable system not dependant on guilty verdicts and traffic tickets.

“A justice system that is dependent on fees and fines is not a good mechanism to adequately fund constitutionally required services,” Schindler said. “Particularly if it’s in some ways unfairly meted out, particularly if it's dependent on costs from largely indigent populations.”

The Louisiana 4th Circuit court of Appeal is considering Hunter’s order now. A decision is yet to be rendered.

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