150 RULE EXPLAINED Part 2
The Public Defender’s Office represents over 88 percent of New Orleans’ 220,000 criminal and traffic court defendants each year.
The Orleans Public Defender’s Office has continuing budget problems, according to an ABC26 news story by Associated Press.
On December 19, 2010, the Public Defender Office and Louisiana Public Defender Board filed a lawsuit in Baton Rouge, saying Orleans Parish judges are routinely failing to assess mandatory fees on convicted defendants. These fees are supposed to support the public defender office.
“Our office is in such a funding crisis that we just couldn’t afford to wait,” Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said after the announcement of a freeze. He estimated the agency’s budget is about $8 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year.
The hiring freeze will mean fewer attorneys to handle cases over the next six months, he said. This in turn will mean higher caseloads for the roughly 55 attorneys on staff, which will slow the process of cases at Criminal District Court, he said.
Where is the problem here? There are several. First, Judges routinely assign the public defenders’ office new clients by the handful in a single Court morning. Some Judges question defendants who pay thousands of dollars for bail, but won’t pay for an attorney. The Judges understand the danger the Public Defenders Office puts its clients in via caretaker legal aid.
The second big problem is caused by the first- Public Defenders have the magical 150 cases assigned to them at this time. This is very bad for the average defendant! It routinely means real JAIL time for the average defendant who probably wouldn’t with a decent paid attorney.
The third problem has to do with the funding mechanism, which is broken, as the Judges have been keeping virtually all the money they have been collecting for themselves. Now the Judges need operating money for their offices, so the real answer is more money from a secure, reliable source for the Public Defenders, not less for the Judges necessarily.
Obviously, like Diversion, the Public Defender’s Office needs better training for its counselors. Cannizzaro, on the Diversion web page, mentions that he has upped the educational requirements for the counselors, requiring them to have a masters degree in social work or counseling. As caretakers for 150 clients each, they don’t get to utilize their training very much.