I worked at Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) for the past four and a half years as a client advocate. I helped people while they were in jail. On good days, I helped people get out of jail. OPD’s office is perpetually overburdened, both historically and presently. Public defenders are not just lawyers, they’re also investigators, social workers, advocates, and court support, among other titles. Right now, OPD’s budget deficit, currently around $600,000, jeopardizes the city’s most vulnerable population— those who rely on the office to serve as a last line of defense from a draconian criminal justice system.
An average of 40 lawyers handle upwards of 150 cases each, drastically limiting the services OPD are able to offer their clients. Gideon vs. Wainwright, the landmark case that demanded the Constitution provide representation for the indigent, happened over 50 years ago. Still, we are having to plan fundraisers to keep OPD’s office doors open.
No one should feel comfortable with leaving people to sit in their city jail, marginalized and defenseless. Crime in New Orleans is high, but so is poverty and injustice. When the epicenter of the city is a 13 section courthouse with a jail holding over 1,500 people at a time, we need to consider how that impacts people, especially those lacking in the power and privilege granted to the city’s more wealthy population.
To give an example of work the OPD does, I’ll tell you about working with a client I feel very close to, Mr. Charles Burbanks. I met him in March of 2014. He was frail and tired on our first encounter in Orleans Parish Prison. He was facing 20-to-life under Louisiana’s multiple offender law. He hadn’t seen his lawyer in a month. In that span of time, he’d been hospitalized multiple times and was diagnosed with stage 3 liver cancer. Despite the serious diagnosis, he wasn’t receiving adequate treatment.
After the visit, I contacted my colleague, a public defender by the name of Omavi Harshaw, so we could work to get him out. We put together a case and asked the judge if he would find mercy for Mr. Burbanks. I arranged all the medical documents, went to LSU and got doctors’ notes, asked the medical director at the jail to testify that he couldn’t provide adequate care for Mr. Burbanks, found a nursing home that would take an indigent parolee, and pleaded with his parole officer to lift the hold on him so he could go to a nursing home. Finally, I arranged for his niece to come from Houston to pay a reduced bond of $100. 67-years-old and terminally ill, Mr. Burbanks was likely going to die in Orleans Parish Prison, stuck behind bars on a non-violent charge.
Yet, Mr. Burbanks did not die in jail. I say this because if OPD continues to not get the funding it needs to operate, people will die in jail waiting for a court date. People will continue to be incarcerated on fines and fees and non-violent charges. Without an adequately-funded public defender’s office, the criminal justice system standing between the accused and their freedom will have no accountability.
New Orleans needs public defenders. It’s not an easy job. I’m not just making that claim because I’ve spent years working as one. As stated earlier, there are 13 sections of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. On any given day, a public defender might have a separate case in four different sections, all being called at the same time. A public defender has to divide themselves and their abilities to give individuals what they deserve: competent and strong representation. In fairness, clients feel cheated all the time. They are unsatisfied all the time. They should be. There should be enough public defenders to go around so that lawyers aren’t exhausted by the time their case is called. OPD has talked about the injustice of having to raise its own funds, but I think my biggest plea, even more important than money, is for humanity. No lawyer should have to represent hundreds of people in a clearly broken system. No one should have to wait over a month to see their lawyer.
Funding OPD means fighting racism. 85% of all arrested people in New Orleans are represented by public defenders. A disproportionate amount of that 85% are poor people of color. They are shackled, dressed in orange, and arranged in front of a court, where their bonds are set and allegations read in public. Is this a grim scene reminiscent of the American South’s shameful past? Yes. Part of fighting racism is ending racial profiling by police. Until that happens, people of color need to be represented fairly and competently. OPD is aware of the injustices and racism that exists not just here but in all communities of poor people of color. A public defender’s caseload is more often than not made up entirely of marginalized people, including underserved mentally ill people and stigmatized individuals struggling with addiction.
Oftentimes, public defenders represent people that have nowhere else to turn for help. Without adequate funding, this help is very difficult to provide. I hope these words are enough for people to learn more and get involved. Talk about it with your family and your friends. Talk about it with your neighbors and your co-workers. Please don’t ignore what’s happening to the state of public defense in New Orleans.
For more information or to find out how you can help, visit www.opdla.org