Justice Has a Waiting List in New Orleans

“Take a number.”

Though rarely pleasant words to hear, you tolerate them from a teller at the DMV or your butcher the day before the Fourth of July. They are not words you would ever expect to hear from your attorney if you have been accused of a crime. But that’s essentially what the New Orleans public defenders’ office in Louisiana has begun telling arrestees this week, as funding shortages and staff attrition have forced the office to place new clients on a waiting list for representation. The people the public defender is making wait in line are most at risk in our justice system: usually poor, often a person of color, and facing severe sentences. Yet, these are the people who most need the public defender’s help investigating the state’s case against them and quickly uncovering favorable evidence before it is lost.

This is why the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit against the New Orleans public defender’s office as well as the Louisiana Public Defender Board for failing to abide by defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to legal representation.

But this is not a problem of the public defender’s making. It is the result of the state of Louisiana’s stubborn refusal to fund its public defender system adequately. And New Orleans is not alone. Fifteen of the state’s 42 defender districts have been driven to similar desperation, attempting to stave off insolvency with measures like firing staff attorneys and investigators, hiring freezes, and waiting lists. The state public defender board, which oversees the defender districts, has predicted that the system will collapse by the end of the summer, when most districts will simply run out of money.

The impending downfall of Louisiana’s public defender system is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is ordinary in that all too many states fail their constitutional obligation to provide competent representation to people who cannot afford an attorney. States from New York to Florida, from Mississippi to Missouri, and from Idaho to California have all faced severe public defender crises in recent years due to legislative neglect. Each of these dysfunctional states is dysfunctional in its own way.

Louisiana is extraordinary in that the primary source for public defense funding comes from fees defendants must pay if found guilty of a crime. That means public defenders can only guarantee their salary if enough of their clients are convicted of crimes. Acquittals are bad for business. Other states impose such fees, but only Louisiana requires its public defenders to feed off their clients’ guilty pleas to survive.

This is more than an abstract concern. Several district defenders have openly admitted asking local law enforcement to write more tickets to keep their offices afloat. This is because over two-thirds of the funding available for public defense comes from fees on traffic tickets. If this transgression seems mild, keep in mind that most Louisiana traffic offenses — yes, like speeding —carry up to 30 days jail time. Other districts have attempted to close the public defender’s budget gap by requiring that defendants awaiting trial cannot be released until they pay their public defender’s $40 application fee. Defendants in these districts may be forgiven if they have difficulty reckoning who their public defender works for: them or the district attorney’s office.

Just as Louisiana’s “user-funded” system leaves public defenders no choice but to risk jailing their clients to earn revenue, it places them at direct odds with reforms aimed at reducing the prison population. District defenders across the state have blamed funding shortages in part on their local prosecutors’ increased use of diversion, in which the prosecution agrees to dismiss the charges if the defendant completes a treatment plan. Diversion is increasingly popular for avoiding unnecessary convictions and incarceration. But the public defender does not collect a fee if her client is successful. She therefore has a powerful incentive to avoid diversion when her job is at risk. In a state with the highest incarceration rate in the world, this is inexcusable.

The solutions to Louisiana’s public defender calamity are simple, if by no means easy. The legislature must commit to fully funding its public defender office in New Orleans and across the state. Clients can no longer bear the burden, and they must never again be told to “take a number.” This requires hard choices in a state facing a massive budget deficit. But if Louisiana cannot afford to defend, it cannot afford to prosecute.

View comments (4)
Read the Terms of Use


Filing a lawsuit against them wont do anything. All that will happens is the remaining money will pay the lawsuit and there wont be any attorneys


"I am a New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victim with legal woes that direct relate to the lack of New Orleans PUBLIC DEFENDERS, the NOT ACCOUNTABLE predatory legal New Orleans group called "Homeless Experience Legal Problems" "H.E.L.P" who SHOULD assist ALL people with legal woe –not simply “homeless” people (and sometimes their families) when Department of Housing and Urban Development $$$$$$$$$$$, and other government programs and funds can be deceptively gained!!!! I am exposing my lawsuit to show outrageous judicial improprieties affecting New Orleans people (and others under their jurisdiction). I am also making a public appeal for legal assistance for myself and other Katrina evacuees who were prevented from returning home!

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal Case No. 15-30626 lawgrace.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/MOTION-TO-CORRECT-AND-LENGTHEN-APPELLANT-BRIEF.pdf
(paragraphs 7-9)

7. The crux of nonlawyer Jackson’s July 8, 2013 lawsuit evolves around multiple methods (especially fraudulent concealment; as well as bait & switch steering of disaster victims –in violation of the Fair Housing Act, to properties owned by concealed nonprofit owners who utilize evacuees for receiving federal funds unbeknownst to those evacuees –and falsifying some as “homeless”!). Hurricane victims such as Jackson, her daughter (and their businesses) were unlawfully exploited and injured by Shreveport nonprofit businesses stemming around the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. However, beginning in year 2015, investigations confirmed that disaster frauds and illegalities that pertain to nonprofit businesses and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) that impeded displaced hurricane victims who desired to return to New Orleans (and likely to other hometowns) also involve undisclosed businesses under control and / or are owned, operated by presiding Judges Samuel Maurice Hick and Magistrate Mark L Hornsby; Chief Judge Carl Stewart and daughter and brother; and even New Orleans Federal Judge Jay Zainey’s disturbing “H.E.L.P.” club or group. With regard to certain alliances in the legal profession, questionable NGO activity encompass activities such as Deceptive Trade Practices, barratry, extortion, and unfair competition. For such reasons, it would not have been in Judge Hicks’ interest to grant Jackson’s September 3, 2015 motion to correct this case record [Record document #68].

8. Too, when Jackson filed her unopposed January 23, 2014 Rule 15(d) motion and proposed supplemental complaint that describes illegitimate Shreveport NGOs [Record document #32], in violation of 18 U.S.C.§ 1503 Magistrate Hornsby and afterward by Judge Hicks obstructed that supplement. Jackson was back then oblivious that her January 23 pleading unwittingly described Shreveport Sarbanes-Oxley nonprofit illegality activity. Jackson again expounded on illegitimate NGOs in Jackson Rule 60(b)(3) motion [Record document #45] filed on . . . ."

mike bayham

It appears this misuse of law resembles characteristics of both a conflict of interest and chain-gang legalities. Indeed, whenever as in this situation, lawyers and/or the Public Defenders Office is confronted with pressure[s] of financial survival, (keeping light on the fact most if not all public defenders have outstanding student loans) and that of proper representation, the lawyer/client, - Public Defenders Office/lawyer relationship is circumvented. Thus, subjecting the client to being merely an outstanding bill and, the lawyer being the bill collector while the Public Defenders Office is overseeing the Lawyer meets his/her collection quota.
That even with bombarding the Defendant with fines and/or prison, whereas the Defendant is obligated to pay money they don't have and/or the prison industrial complex adding another head count, there overwhelmingly exist pressure other than that of unbiased representation.

Micheal Bayham

This is war on it's people, nothing less.

Stay Informed