The journalists from "60 Minutes" failed to ask Orleans Public Defenders’ employees the most important question of all: Why didn’t they do this 20 years ago?
Recently, the television magazine aired an episode investigating the office’s refusal to defend felony cases. Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton said a lack of government funding forced him into this position over a year ago. "60 Minutes" called this a “kind of protest” over insufficient resources to deal with a crushing caseload.
At first glance, the numbers seem daunting. For 2015 in the 41st District, the two main sources of cases for the OPD — the district’s Criminal Court and the city’s Municipal Court (a small number of juvenile and traffic cases the office also defends) — had nearly 30,000 criminal filings. In a typical year, roughly 80 percent involve defendants judged indigent and qualifying for OPD services.
But a review of the office’s financial reports over the past two decades reveals a stunning increase in the amount of money that flowed into the office. Meanwhile, criminal justice statistics spanning the same time period show both the number of potential cases and the violent crime rate in New Orleans declined significantly.
In 1996, the office (then known as Orleans Indigent Defender Program) received almost $2.1 million and spent more than $2.2 million to respond to more than 58,000 filings, of which almost 10,000 occurred in district court, where the more serious crimes, which consume more resources to defend, are adjudicated. Back then, the agency had in savings around $509,000 in unrestricted funds. In contrast, by the end of 2015, just as the case stoppage commenced, OPD accepted $6.8 million in revenues while spending just below $7 million on 29,853 filings, with only 4,679 taking place in district court, and had bankrolled a shade under $812,000 in unencumbered funds.
In between, from 1996 to 2005, revenue remained mostly flat but subsequently zoomed upwards after reconfiguration of the state’s indigent defense system, which imposed special increases in the court fees that largely fund indigent defense and allocated more state money. Predictably, expenses followed the same pattern, yet the number of criminal cases unevenly but steadily fell throughout those two decades.
All the while, the number of serious, dollar-draining crimes went down. In 1995, New Orleans authorities logged 10,876 violent crimes that included 363 homicides; in 2015, they recorded 3,736 violent crimes of which 164 were murders. During the two decades, numbers for these major crimes tracked the pattern of cases: up-and-down, but over time declining considerably.
To put it in perspective, in 1996, the office spent about $38 per case filed or almost $235 per district court case; in 2015, it spent $232 per case or nearly $1,500 per district filing. In terms of crimes, in 2015 compared to 1995, it spent over eight times more per murder or almost 11 times more per violent crime perpetrated.
Additionally, by 2010 both New Orleans and area nonprofits annually were contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to OPD. And, its average caseload per full-time equivalent attorney is less than half the statewide average.
Asked about these trends, Bunton noted that public defenders in past years individually had voiced concern over the level of funding available. He also challenged the notion that absence of past agency formal protests implied adequacy in funding then.
While public defense statewide generally remains underfunded, Orleans public defense in the past had responsibility for many more cases with far fewer dollars, and didn't go into crisis mode. That calls into question Bunton’s extremist response today.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.