Three years after purging nearly a third of his lawyers amid a steep budget shortfall, Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton has told his staff that a new round of stiff cuts — lengthy furloughs, possibly layoffs or some combination — is coming.
Bunton put his austerity plan on paper last week, alerting the City Council, the mayor, judges and Sheriff Marlin Gusman that it “will likely cause serious delays in the courts and potential constitutional crises for our criminal justice system in New Orleans if no solution is reached timely.”
Bunton said he would institute a hiring freeze beginning July 1, the start of a new fiscal year in which he says he’s facing a $1 million shortfall from the current year’s budget of about $6 million.
Barring a bailout before then, furloughs will come in October, Bunton said. His letter did not say how long the furloughs would run, but Bunton has told his staff they can expect to lose several weeks of pay.
In his letter describing his “Restriction of Services Plan,” Bunton also said his office will stop paying for outside “conflict” attorneys in new capital cases in which defendants facing the death penalty need them. The only outside “conflict” attorneys the office will hire for non-capital cases will be those assigned to gang racketeering cases for which the City Council has specifically earmarked money, he wrote.
The office’s inside conflict division — which handles some cases where, for instance, the Public Defender’s Office represents a co-defendant — will remain intact but will limit its workload and set up a waiting list for those defendants.
Those moves could force judges to assign private attorneys in droves to work criminal cases pro bono for indigent clients, as happened following the 2012 cuts.
Bunton’s office now has 88 employees, about 50 of whom are lawyers, including supervisors.
Bunton has often pleaded poverty in the past as he seeks reform of a state funding system for public defenders that relies heavily on fines and fees from criminal defendants and the whims of state and city lawmakers.
Bunton, whose office receives more than half of its funding from fines and fees, describes the so-called “user-pay” system as “inadequate, unpredictable and unreliable.”
Some critics, mostly private defense lawyers, claim the Public Defender’s Office goes out of its way to represent some people who could hire their own attorneys, inflating the costs for an office that became staffed with full-time attorneys only after Hurricane Katrina.
That reform was meant to professionalize the defense of indigent clients. It also vastly expanded the budget for the office, from a few million dollars a year to $9.5 million by 2012.
That’s when the Louisiana Public Defender Board ended nearly $2 million in extra support for Bunton’s office, which represents some 85 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish. Bunton laid off more than 20 lawyers and cut other costs, bringing the budget down to around $6 million.
But in an interview this week, he said revenue projections for the coming fiscal year spell further slicing.
“I’ve told them they should expect tough times, up to and including furloughs, layoffs, loss of benefits,” Bunton said of his meetings with his staff.
Bunton cited a decline of nearly 20 percent — or about $1 million — in expected revenue.
Most of that slide, he said, is from a $700,000 reduction in funding from the state board under a workload formula for public defenders statewide; several other public defender offices in Louisiana face a budget crunch that some are calling a crisis.
But revenue from fees levied on defendants, particularly in New Orleans’ traffic and municipal courts, also has shriveled substantially, said Bunton, who sued Traffic Court in 2012 to force more stringent collection of fees dedicated to indigent defense.
The expected revenue from Traffic Court alone is down by about a third, or some $300,000, said Bunton, citing declining caseloads attributable to fewer traffic tickets and arrests by a depleted New Orleans police force.
Revenues from Municipal Court and Criminal District Court also are “trending down,” Bunton said.
He said he started the fiscal year with about $1 million in a fund balance designed to bridge the gap from revenue collections and payroll. The fund balance is down to $800,000 now, he said, and his shrinkage plan anticipates it will drain to $500,000, or about one month’s worth of expenses.
“It’s not necessarily furloughs. It could be a combination of things,” Bunton said of his cost-cutting. “But none of them are good.”
Efforts to reach state Public Defender James Dixon Jr. were unsuccessful.
Staff attorneys in Bunton’s office make between $45,000 and $77,000 a year in salary, with pay rising to $95,000 for Bunton’s top deputies.
By comparison, attorneys in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office start about the same, at $46,600, but most of the prosecutors who handle major offense trials make $92,000. The highest-paid, Laura Rodrigue, makes $95,000.
Seven employees of the District Attorney’s Office make six-figure salaries, including Cannizzaro, at $150,000.
Bunton, at $116,000, has the lone six-figure salary in the Public Defender’s Office, according to recent rosters provided by each agency.
Overall, the DA’s budget, including $6 million in city funding, is more than double that of the defender’s office.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.