The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Orleans Public Defender System Rotten, Neglected

by Shreema Mehta

Low-income defendants are being denied their right to counsel, and while everyone from the judges to the Justice Department knows it, little is being done to fix it.

Dec. 18, 2006 – Thousands of pre-trial defendants in New Orleans are languishing in prison and being denied their right to an attorney after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city’s already inadequate public defender system.

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Though the US Department of Justice is aware that indigent suspects are being deprived adequate counsel, it has not remedied the situation beyond distributing grants to the office.

Last month, the court ordered the New Orleans public defenders’ office to hire more attorneys or face a contempt hearing, originally scheduled for last Friday. The court withdrew the demand on December 5 after the city public defenders’ office argued that a post-Katrina funding crisis made hiring more attorneys impossible.

Critics say the backlog is not just a result of the hurricane, but rather of years-old funding deficiencies in the state’s indigent-defense system.

"I would describe the situation as not a lot different than what it was before Katrina, which was bad," said Stephen Singer, a law professor at Loyola University who is helping to build a new public defenders’ office for New Orleans. Singer said the hurricane merely "exacerbated" longstanding problems.

Though no one interviewed for this story could give TNS information on how many people are awaiting trial in New Orleans, US Department of Justice researchers estimated in April that there were about 2,000 pre-trial detainees needing public defenders in Orleans Parish.

In its evaluation of the public defender system in Orleans Parish after Hurricane Katrina, the US Department of Justice stated, "It appears to us that the only justice that can be meted out today is for those who can pay for a lawyer and bondsman."

The Justice Department study found that attorneys only met briefly with their clients, often only on the day of a proceeding. It said defendants were even passed from attorney to attorney as their cases moved through the system. Attorneys worked in the courtroom with no private offices or phone lines, making confidential consultations difficult.

The DoJ study also noted that the public defenders’ office itself had no phone number, and clients could not come to the office.

Singer, who is helping build a new public defender system in New Orleans at the behest of his university, said the office has hired full-time attorneys; the parish previously relied on lawyers working part time, juggling indigent-defense cases with more-lucrative private clients. The public defenders are also moving to a new office that will let clients reach attorneys directly and meet with them privately.

But the DoJ found the office needs a $10 million budget to turn into a properly functioning system. The public defenders’ office was running on a $2.5 million budget before the hurricane hit, according to Singer, and those funds largely dried up after Hurricane Katrina. The DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has agreed to provide the office $2.8 million in emergency funding over two years, according to Singer.

Unlike other states’, Louisiana’s indigent-defense system relies on revenues generated from traffic tickets instead of fixed county and state taxes.

Groups that advocate for prisoners also say Louisiana’s problems are not unique and that blame spreads to the federal government.

Recent news reports from Missouri to Miami detail shortages in public defender staff that some attribute to low salaries and high workloads.

"The American public would be shocked at how little some states pay [attention]… to counsel," said David Carroll, director of research with the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

The 1963 Supreme Court ruling on Gideon v. Wainwright said the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to ensure access to legal representation. But advocates for the incarcerated say that while the DoJ distributes some grants for public defenders’ offices, Washington does not do enough to ensure the right to legal defense.

Dissatisfied with federal efforts, many critics have filed lawsuits arguing that states’ negligence has violated the right to counsel.

In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken legal action against several counties and states, demanding an increase in funds for public defender systems. Grant County, Washington settled such a suit in November 2005 by agreeing to limit the number of felonies attorneys handle a year, hire more full-time investigators and institute minimum qualifications for defenders. In 2005, as a result of a lawsuit, Montana created a statewide public defender system with universal training and caseload standards.

A push for reform is also on in Louisiana. A task force appointed by the state legislature in 2003 introduced a package of proposals to reform the state’s public defender system. The ideas were only considered by lawmakers this year, but a bill that passed will require counties to submit their financial records to a state auditor.

"There are some districts where some people have no idea what’s going on. There may be only one lawyer," said Heather Hall, director of the Louisiana Justice Coalition, which works to reform the state’s indigent-defense system. "What was important about the bills that came out of the task force was this whole move to get hard data so that policymakers weren’t shooting in the dark."

Another bill approved by lawmakers will provide more than $20 million in state funds to a public defenders’ assistance board mandated to enforce uniform standards throughout Louisiana.

Hall said the two bills passed were a "far cry from reform" without the other proposals, which included devoting a fixed amount of state money to Orleans Parish’s indigent-defense system and the creation of regional centers to request and manage state funds for public defender systems.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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