The wheels of justice figure to grind more slowly at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court next year, following an announcement Monday that Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton will institute 10 days of staff furloughs for all of his employees between February and June.
The staggered shutdowns, which Bunton announced to the court and the city, aren’t as bad as the 30 furlough days that he said in June he feared would be necessary as he grappled with a looming $1 million budget shortfall.
But part of the budget relief also has come from thinning ranks at the Public Defenders Office, with a dozen staffers leaving since July 1 under the cloud of the threatened austerity. Eight of the staffers who have quit were lawyers, Bunton said, leaving a little more than 40 lawyers in an office that represents about 85 percent of criminal defendants in the parish.
The dozen Criminal Court judges “are going to be irked, but it gives everybody involved time to plan,” Bunton said of the furloughs announcement. “That was our intent, to not shock the system.”
Bunton has long decried a funding scheme for public defenders in Louisiana that is built largely on revenue from fines and fees leveled on criminal defendants. Those fees make up about half of the Orleans office’s $5.9 million budget.
He said he’s still hopeful he’ll be able to squeeze more money from the City Council and curtail the planned furloughs, but any furloughs are likely to stall courtroom dockets.
Rob Kazik, judicial administrator for the Criminal Court, said the judges hadn’t had a chance to digest news of the furloughs.
“The city has shown real concern and attention,” said Bunton, who went before the council last week, hat in hand. “All we’re asking is basically to stop the bleeding. I really am afraid of what furloughs will do to our existing staff at this point.”
The move comes as Bunton prepares to testify Friday before Judge Arthur Hunter, a sympathetic ear on the court, who has called a hearing on the adequacy of criminal defense funding in New Orleans. Hunter said he wants to know whether poor defendants in his court section receive constitutionally adequate representation.
Bunton said some of the budget shortfall is the result of cutbacks in state funding, as well as a reduction in revenue from court fines and fees, particularly from Traffic Cout, as New Orleans police make fewer arrests.
In a statement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office pledged a commitment to “helping ensure the Orleans Public Defender’s Office has the resources to provide our most vulnerable residents fair representation in court.”
The statement noted an increasing in funding for the office from $831,000 last year to a proposed $1.3 million for next year, and a $700,000 slide in funding from the state Public Defender Board, wnich in years past had kicked in extra to the high-volume office.
Landrieu’s pledge came with a shot.
“It’s high past time that the State fulfilled its responsibilities in this area,” it said. “The City cannot continue to be called upon to step in to solve problems caused by the State.”
The city’s commitment to the District Attorney’s Office has remained relatively level in recent years, with a lift from $6.3 million to $6.5 million in the past two years, budget figures show.
This story has been updated to include comments from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.