With one of the highest poverty rates in the country, Louisiana needs to reform its system of public defense funding, the Orleans Parish chief public defender wrote in a recent editorial for the New York Times.
Last month, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office began turning away serious new felony cases and withdrawing from others. At the time, Bunton said that experienced public defenders were leaving his office amid steep cutbacks and a hiring freeze aimed at plugging a $700,000 deficit.
In his editorial for the Times, published online Friday, Bunton also referenced the Bunny Friend Park shooting and an arrest and subsequent exoneration, in which the suspect and his private lawyer located a video showing himself in Houston at the time of the shooting, as a reason his office stopped taking cases.
“Reading about this case, I realized my office could not have guaranteed the timely retrieval of this important evidence before it would have been routinely erased,” Bunton wrote in the editorial. “That would have left an innocent man to face trial for his life for what was labeled an act of ‘domestic terrorism’ by the mayor of New Orleans.”
Bunton also wrote that Louisiana relies too heavily on fines “paid mostly by the poor” for public defense funding. Louisiana spends nearly $3.5 billion a year to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate offenders, and spends less than 2 percent of that money to defend the poor, Bunton said.
“It is little wonder that Louisiana has the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and exoneration for wrongful convictions,” he said (emphasis his).