The New Orleans City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration will look for ways to help shore up the Orleans Public Defenders Office, which is contemplating slashing its staff in the wake of funding cuts from the state and a drop in revenue from fines.
In an appearance Wednesday before the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said a planned $1 million in cuts would devastate the office. He earned words of support from several council members.
No specific proposals for providing more local funding for the office — which is supposed to be paid for by the state and through a share of money collected by the courts — were outlined during the meeting, but council members said it is crucial that the office gets the money it needs.
“If you want a fully functioning criminal justice system, you’ve got to figure out how to solve the problem,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said.
Landrieu, whose administration is in the early stages of crafting the city’s budget for the coming year, also appears on board with helping the office, though the mayor was reluctant to commit the city to providing more money during recent public meetings about the 2016 spending plan.
The office’s precarious financial position results from a roughly $700,000 funding cut from the state and a $300,000 drop in collections from fines, Bunton said.
He said the office is already operating with a bare-bones staff of 61 that includes 43 lawyers and 13 investigators who are responsible for representing about 20,000 defendants, roughly 85 percent of all those who appear as criminal defendants in Orleans Parish courts.
The office’s $6.9 million budget is about a third of that provided to the District Attorney’s Office, which raises questions about whether the office has the resources to properly defend its clients even before additional cuts are taken into account, officials said.
And that, Bunton said, could spur suits by clients or outside groups arguing the office had not provided adequate representation or could lead appeals courts to overturn guilty verdicts.
“Its easy to say, ‘Yes, give the money to the guy who’s fighting crime and not the one who’s protecting our population from possible incorrect charges or protecting them in how they get through the system,’ ” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee.
The matter isn’t just a moral or philosophical exercise for city government or one that’s solely about avoiding potential lawsuits. The council, which is in the midst of a tug-of-war with Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the proper size for Orleans Parish Prison, has been arguing for reducing the inmate population at the jail because that would mean less cost to the city.
Further cuts at the Public Defenders Office could work against those efforts because with fewer attorneys, inmates likely will have to spend more time behind bars before going to trial.
“An increase in case processing time is an increase in length of stay, which again is an increase in city expenditures on the jail,” Bunton said.
During a series of community meetings on the budget last week, Landrieu placed the blame for the cut in the Public Defenders Office’s budget on state government and turned the conversation to the long list of items — including consent decrees and court judgments — that represent significant demands on the city’s budget.
“Mayor Landrieu is fully committed to funding the Orleans Public Defenders Office so that it may continue to provide our most vulnerable residents fair representation in court,” Landrieu Communications Director Sarah McLaughlin said Wednesday.
“All New Orleanians are entitled to equal protection under the law, and this office is composed of conscientious, caring professionals committed to providing poor and indigent residents client-centered legal representation of the highest quality whether in Criminal, Juvenile or Municipal/Traffic Court.”
McLaughlin noted the office this year is receiving about $938,000 from the city, about $107,000 more than last year.
Few specifics of how to provide more funding for the Public Defenders Office were discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, though the city has recently seen its coffers filled by a rapid growth in sales tax revenue, a $45 million settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other sources, such as an auction of properties whose owners hadn’t paid taxes.
Council President Jason Williams floated the idea of finding a home for the office in a building where it would not have to pay the roughly $264,000 a year it now spends on rent, though he did not suggest where that rent-free home might be.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.