Poor people booked with crimes in New Orleans no longer will be appointed public defenders from start to finish in their cases, under a new court policy aimed at better determining who really needs a free lawyer and getting a handle on public defender workloads.
The new, though unwritten, policy was confirmed by Criminal District Court Chief Judge Laurie White, who spearheaded the move.
Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in New Orleans, called the policy shift “wrongheaded,” though he said the impact isn’t yet clear.
The new directive, issued last week, has started to take hold in Magistrate Court, where Judge Harry Cantrell on Monday assigned public defenders to four new suspects, but only for their first court appearances.
Under the new policy, jailed defendants will keep their temporary public defenders until District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office decides whether to accept criminal charges against them; those who go free on bond will not.
Either way, the 12 district judges will decide later whether a defendant needs a public defender from arraignment to a possible trial, White said.
For practical purposes, though, nothing much has changed in what happens to most criminal defendants; it was just spelled out to the magistrate commissioners, Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson said.
“There is no new rule,” she said. “This is the practice that has been employed in Magistrate Court.”
She noted that there is a process at arraignment for the 12 judges to reappoint the public defender to a defendant’s case and to collect a $40 application fee.
Many judges already frown on reappointing a public defender if an arrestee makes bond, although legally that fact can’t be a factor in the decision.
Many defendants may not notice much difference, as the strain on resources at Bunton’s office has left little time for early jailhouse visits or substantial early investigations by lawyers in the office, attorneys say.
Cantrell declined to comment on the issue.
The new policy, if it is one, comes in response to cries of poverty and excessive workloads from Bunton’s office, which in January began refusing to represent scores of defendants accused of the most serious felonies, including murder, aggravated rape and kidnapping.
Amid a crisis in public defense funding that has prompted calls for statewide reform, Bunton last summer froze hiring, among other austerity measures that prompted several experienced lawyers in his office to call it quits. With too few lawyers left to take on more of the toughest cases, Bunton said, his office has been forced to turn away more than 100 arrestees since January, although it still accepts most lower-level felony cases.
White has voiced exasperation over the selective refusals, which force her and other judges to appoint private attorneys or leave suspects without lawyers. She has scheduled a hearing next week on the issue.
“We’re trying to alleviate (Bunton’s office) from wasting any of their valuable time and resources on anybody that will not be their client,” White said of the change.
She suggested that public defender caseloads may be artificially swollen, in part because of a failure by Bunton’s office to alert the court when it learns a client has enough money for a private attorney. Cantrell and the four magistrate commissioners often appoint the Public Defenders Office to represent a defendant based on a brief back-and-forth with the arrestee.
“Why would anybody want to pay for a lawyer when it’s so easy (to get a free one)?” White asked. “We need every judge evaluating everybody (for indigency). I want to know if this is a management issue, a numbers issue or a real crisis.”
But Bunton said he worries that the new policy will leave some poor defendants with no one to investigate their cases, gather evidence or argue for lower bail in the days or weeks following their arrest, before the case makes it to one of the criminal court judges.
“At the core, (the new policy says) that some of these poor people don’t really need lawyers. I think that’s the wrong orientation to take. It (raises) the question: Is poor-people justice the same as rich-people justice?” Bunton said.
“This seems like a policy that throws the baby out with the bath water in terms of representation. I applaud Judge White for trying to do something to stem the tide (and) try to control the work. I just don’t think this is the right strategy for doing that.”
Bunton said little has changed in his office’s budget picture since January, although he said it has started refusing appointments in some armed robbery and aggravated burglary cases as well. Caseloads for gun and drug offenses also are stretching the office thin, he said.
Overall, his office’s workload remains excessive “by any standard,” he said.
In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sued Bunton’s office in federal court, claiming that its “refusal to represent plaintiffs means they must languish indefinitely in jail without counsel until (the office) secures adequate resources to provide them with an attorney.”
While the suit names Bunton as a defendant, it really takes aim at a “dysfunctional” state funding scheme for public defense that relies largely on the vagaries of traffic-ticket writing.
Meanwhile, Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter is slated to hold a hearing Tuesday on challenges from local attorneys who were appointed to handle cases that Bunton’s office declined.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.