An unusual crowdfunding campaign launched by the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office got a boost overnight Monday from a TV diatribe launched by former “Daily Show” commentator John Oliver on his HBO comedy show, “Last Week Tonight.”
New Orleans served as one of the poster children for the British comedian as he waxed indignant for 15 minutes about the thinly stretched state of public defense nationwide.
Lamenting a “meet ’em and plead ’em system” for indigent defense, Oliver cited a somewhat dated 2009 study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that found bloated caseloads for some public defenders in New Orleans left them with just seven minutes per case, on average.
“If I only had seven minutes to prepare this show, I definitely would not be talking about public defenders right now,” Oliver joked. “I’d be desperately trying to fill time by listing the Muppets by order of” sexual attraction.
The impact was seen immediately on a crowdfunding campaign that Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office launched last week to try to offset a projected $1 million drop in revenue.
The total amount raised jumped from $7,000 to about $14,500 overnight, with donations rolling in from as far away as Hong Kong and the Netherlands, said spokeswoman Lindsey Hortenstine.
Bunton is a longtime critic of what he calls a “user-pay” public defense system in Louisiana that relies more than any other state on fines and fees levied against criminal defendants. He has called the system “inadequate, unreliable and unpredictable,” noting that much of the budget decline this year is the result of a slide in traffic arrests, which tend to generate such fees.
In an interview Monday, Bunton said Oliver’s on-air critique rang true.
“When you’re watching it being presented in a national program, you really are struck by how absurd it is that we would depend on this kind of system to secure one of the original amendments to the Constitution,” Bunton said. “We’re the only state that is so dependent on fines and fees that traffic tickets literally control their Sixth Amendment rights to counsel.”
Bunton recently announced a hiring freeze and four weeks of unpaid furlough for his staff, among other measures aimed at coping with the million-dollar budget slide.
Last week, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter put off a hearing in which Bunton was set to testify about his office’s ability to constitutionally represent indigent defendants.
Hunter appeared eager to prod action, but Bunton said he wanted first to see how the state and local budget cycles go this year.
Bunton said many lawyers in his office work upwards of 350 cases a year. While they have more than the seven minutes per case cited in the 2009 study, “it’s still a caseload that way exceeds national standards,” he said.
The crowdfunding campaign, at www.opdla.causevox.com, has a goal of $50,000 and features a series of cocktail hours that are unlikely to generate as much cash flow as a well-honed bit of political snark.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.