The Orleans Public Defenders will institute a hiring freeze and stop farming out some cases to private attorneys, the agency has announced — the first step in a plan to cut costs in the face of declining revenue.
In a letter last week to city leaders, Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton said he is reacting to a projected $400,000 shortfall in money from court fines and fees and a $700,000 cut from the state Public Defender Board for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
Bunton said in an interview Sunday that he expects the revenue bleeding to continue in the next fiscal year — and the end result could be staff layoffs and longer waiting times for attorneys to take on cases, snarling court dockets and slowing the resolution of cases.
“We're running out of money, and we have to slow spending to be able to keep the office open,” Bunton said. “It's been shortfall compounded by shortfall compounded by shortfall.”
The Orleans Public Defender’s Office faces a potentially sharp drop in its budget next year due to cuts in state funding and the planned remov…
It's not a new problem. The agency’s recurring budget crises led to large-scale layoffs in 2012 and a waiting list for representation in felony cases in 2015 and 2016.
The latest cutback in services is far less dramatic for now. On Friday, the public defenders office signed its last contract with private attorneys to handle what are known as “conflict cases,” where co-defendants’ interests are at odds.
“If you get co-defendants and each is pointing the finger at the other, our office can't represent both. So what we do is use the private bar,” Bunton said.
Bunton said he halted spending on conflict cases first because the office is already $200,000 over budget for such cases for the fiscal year.
The conflict caseload has been swelled by a rising number of juveniles transferred to adult court and Operation Summer Heat, a large roundup of alleged drug dealers the New Orleans Police Department conducted in August, Bunton said.
Conflict cases represent a “significant” portion of the agency’s overall workload, totaling 1,000 to 1,500 such cases a year, Bunton said. The contracts signed Friday will be exhausted in a week or two, and new clients then will be turned away, he said.
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“After that, it's going to be relying on pro bono representation or folks will just be sitting in jail,” he added.
Criminal District Court judges had different reactions to the agency’s last austerity measures in 2015 and 2016, when it curtailed the use of private conflict lawyers and began refusing serious felony cases.
Some judges appointed private lawyers to represent defendants without pay.
Judge Arthur Hunter ordered the release of seven men facing charges like murder and rape, saying their rights were being violated by long jail stints without adequate funding for their defense. An appeals court overturned his order before they were let out of jail.
In addition to ending the contracting out of conflict cases, Bunton said his agency will also stop hiring new employees. That means his staff's caseloads — already large — will grow as the agency’s head count dwindles.
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The agency’s budget involves a mix of state funding, city money and revenue from traffic tickets and court fines. It spent $8.3 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, well above the amount its predecessor agency spent annually before Hurricane Katrina, when it had no staff attorneys.
Although it now has a larger budget than before the storm, the office's finances have been unpredictable over the past decade due to fluctuations in state funding and its reliance on court fees and fines. Bunton has long criticized Louisiana’s “user pays” method of using fines and fees to pay for the criminal justice system.
When Mayor LaToya Cantrell removed many of the city’s traffic cameras at the start of this year, the public defenders — who got $5 for each camera ticket — were in line for a roughly $300,000 hit. The City Council voted to send the agency an equal amount to make up for the shortfall, but Bunton said other revenues are also declining. He said it was too early to tell if Cantrell’s decision to lower the speeding trigger for camera tickets would make up some of the revenue loss.
The state's Public Defender Board had already reduced the local agency’s funding by $700,000 for the year, the result of a statewide crisis that has led many other defender offices to impose service restrictions.
Meanwhile, the agency is also collecting less money from Criminal District Court and Municipal & Traffic Court fines and fees, Bunton said. The projected decrease in that revenue for the year is $400,000.
Bunton said he believes two civil-rights lawsuits targeting Criminal District Court’s reliance on such fees is partially responsible for the drop-off. Money from fines and fees is split among the city’s various criminal justice agencies.
The City Council gave the criminal court judges $3.8 million in extra funding in response to those lawsuits, but public defenders did not receive additional money.
A year ago, Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton appeared in Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter’s courtroom and said th…
Bunton said he will ask the state board for additional money, but even if the Legislature allocates more money for the state board in next year’s budget, Bunton expects at most $200,000 more for his office, because so many other districts are in crisis.
Bunton said he is also asking the city for a $1.5 million midyear appropriation. That would bring the agency closer to his long-stated goal of getting 85 percent of the amount the city sends to the District Attorney’s Office, currently $6.6 million.
The public defenders handle roughly 85 percent of the district attorney’s caseload, with the other cases falling to private lawyers.
Bunton’s pleas for a more reliable revenue stream from the city have fallen on deaf ears in the past.
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City Hall officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.
“The long-term answer is we need to change at the state level,” Bunton said. “At the local level, we need to take the scarce resources we do have and appropriate them equitably.”