Is Crowdfunding the Right Response to the Louisiana Public Defender Funding Crisis?

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September 15, 2015; The Advocate

If you were charged with a crime, would a total of seven minutes be enough time to meet with your attorney and feel properly represented? In New Orleans, that is the estimated time each public defender has to spend on a case.

The funding for Louisiana’s public defenders has been making headlines. There are some who believe the state public defender board is being unwise in their spending. Louisiana State Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) introduced legislation to create the Indigent Defense Review Committee, a task force designed to study the operation of the public defender’s office and determine any changes necessary to help the office to do more with the money it already has. The public defender board receives $33 million in state funding each year, with approximately $11 million being spent on capital cases.

On the flip side are those who believe there ‘s not nearly enough money to do the job with integrity. Tina Peng, an attorney in the Orleans Public Defenders’ office, recently wrote an editorial providing in-depth background on the need for public defenders and the ongoing issue of funding. The office is facing a million-dollar deficit, which has ratcheted up the stress on an already overworked crew. Peng writes about her “unconstitutionally high caseload,” and how her lack of time can means clients sit in jail longer than required, or she may see them only once or twice before they are arraigned. She adds, “I plead some of my clients to felony convictions on the day I meet them.”

This is bigger than a conversation about funding. The right to a public defender was guaranteed by the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark case in 1963. For those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be provided. However, public defenders nationwide are deeply overworked, making it nearly impossible for them to provide appropriate counsel, case preparation, research, or investigation. It is estimated that one of the side effects of this lack of public defender time is the extremely high rate of plea deals that are reached, with estimates as high as 90 to 95 percent. While a plea bargain does not sound like a highly negative outcome, it can have long-lasting negative affects on clients who do not fully understand the consequences attached to the plea.

For one Orleans Parish Judge, it is time to take action. Judge Arthur Hunter read the editorial by Tina Peng and wanted to know if the defendants he was seeing in court were receiving appropriate representation. He scheduled a hearing and subpoenaed Derwyn Bunton, Chief Public Defender. The hearing has been rescheduled for November 18th, as Bunton has requested a delay in order to continue to work on potential funding solutions.

In the meantime, the public defenders’ office has started a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised more than $40,000 toward their $50,000 goal, with three days remaining.

Public defenders are necessary to protect the constitutional rights the thousands of clients they serve each year. For the Orleans Public Defenders’ office, the crowdfunding campaign is inappropriate support for a constitutionally assured right. However, it will surely bring in some money, and it may end up being a good move to bring public attention to the problem.—Kari Thierer