A plan to house the Orleans Public Defenders Office in a homeless shelter was proposed by a New Orleans City Council member Thursday as a way to eliminate the office’s lease payments and save money that could help it weather state budget cuts.
The plan, which could save the Public Defenders Office close to $300,000 a year, would move the office to space within a homeless shelter being constructed by the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of its new hospital complex in Mid-City, Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.
The shelter is expected to be turned over to the city and to have extra space that could be used by the Defenders Office, officials said during a hearing on the office’s 2016 budget.
“It’s a limited budget we’re giving you, but we found you all a place,” Guidry said.
The Public Defenders Office — which represents about 85 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish — is bracing for a projected $1 million cut in its state funding this fiscal year. That has led to hiring freezes and furloughs in the office, which has pushed for more city funding to help make up the shortfall and even taken the unusual step of turning to online crowdfunding sites in search of donations.
“We are to the bone right now,” Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said, suggesting the lack of resources and the state’s system of funding public defenders through fines and fees on defendants make the office “a shiny, bright target for litigation.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed budget for 2016 would increase the city’s contribution to the office by $150,000, bringing it to about $1.3 million a year.
The office pays about $294,000 a year to lease its current office space. Without the need to make those payments, officials suggested, the office would be able to limp through the year.
While Guidry was the only council member to identify a specific building, other council members also expressed an interest in finding city-owned office space that could be used by the Defenders Office.
The budget cuts already have had a significant impact on the office, Bunton said.
“We are in a hiring freeze, and we’re losing employees pretty regularly,” he said. “We’ve been down, and increasingly been down, lawyers, losing investigators. We’re about to lose some administrative capacity if things don’t change.”
Councilman James Gray said making sure the Public Defenders Office is properly funded is a key element of ensuring the city has a fair criminal justice system that can be trusted by residents. And even though it might be the state’s job to pay for that system, the city must step up if Baton Rouge does not, he said.
“I imagine some people would say it’s more important to spend money on the DA than the public defender because it’s the DA’s job to protect us,” Gray said. “But I want to be clear: They’re both part of a system that’s designed to protect us, and if they don’t both get funded, it won’t.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.