In his column, “Orleans Parish Defenders Office claims about finances don’t add up,” Jeff Sadow, referencing a "60 Minutes" episode featuring our office, begins with the wrong assumption and uses a flawed analysis.
The core question posed by Sadow is “why do the Orleans Public Defenders refuse cases now, when no one complained before?” The short answer: Enough is enough.
"60 Minutes" rigorously researched OPD, asking questions about historic funding and crime; they compared our funding to other public defender offices and consulted experts. Full research reveals a shocking and continuing neglect of the 6th Amendment Right to Counsel in Louisiana, fueled by an inadequate, unpredictable and unreliable user-pay funding scheme.
Sadow erroneously suggests no one complained for 20 years. Research shows decades of litigation and public criticism regarding public defense at every level in Louisiana. In 1993, a public defender refused to go forward in a case, complaining he lacked constitutionally adequate resources. The case was State v. Peart. In 2005, the Louisiana Supreme Court authorized judges to halt prosecutions where defense lacked adequate funding and resources. The case was State v. Citizen. A New York Times article from 1997, titled, “Few Options or Safeguards in a City's Juvenile Courts,” stated, “[The public defender], has no office. Nor does he have a file cabinet, a telephone to contact defendants or a clerk or secretary to help him draw up motions or conduct investigations.”
The simple-minded, misleading tracking of funding increases by Sadow ignores the reality of prior decades of neglect. OPD did not move from appropriate funding to more appropriate funding. OPD is moving from misery to poverty to — one day — justice. Over the last 12 years, reports by the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance; the National Legal Aid and Defender Association; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Bar Association looked at historical conditions, resources and workloads. All reached the same conclusion: OPD needs more adequate, reliable and predictable resources.
Over the last 20 years, Louisiana recorded 41 exonerations on its way to becoming the incarceration capital of the world. It is no coincidence policies during this time drove public defense into a hole. Only now is OPD beginning to consistently defend innocence, protect the constitution and hold power accountable.
For decades, trailblazing public defenders from the old Orleans Indigent Defender Program and statewide – with few resources – pushed and supported reform, and today we continue to inch and bend toward a more just system. Even now, HB 413 is moving through the legislature to provide additional resources to public defenders.
Mr. Sadow may be a professor of government, but his column makes clear he is no student of history.
chief defender, Orleans Parish