Louisiana’s Budget Crisis Spells Doomsday For Justice In New Orleans

CREDIT: Carimah Townes

Orleans Parish Juvenile Court

Thanks to years of tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate kickbacks under former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s leadership, Louisiana is on the brink of economic collapse. If the state can’t find billions of dollars in revenue by Wednesday night, many basic services will be slashed into oblivion — including hospitals, universities, and resources to combat child abuse.

For a criminal justice system that’s already under-resourced and underfunded, the Doomsday scenario will also decimate indigent defense in the state. Public defenders are bracing for a 63 percent cut to their funding — meaning the 42 judicial districts will be given a paltry $12 million or so to operate. Offices across the state have already shut their doors, leaving Louisiana’s poor without constitutionally-mandated legal representation.

In Louisiana’s largest city, an overburdened defense system is expected to get much worse.

Stuck In Jail

New Orleans’ public defense budget has been slashed every year since 2010, according to Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, but the latest round of cuts could be the most drastic yet. In FY 2010, the state gave OPD $6 million. In FY 2016, that sum dropped to $1.8 million. Fines and court fees made up the rest of the $5.7 million budget, which had to cover salaries for attorneys, investigators, and support staff, as well as operating costs (rent, phone bills and internet bills, and postage).

Deputy Chief Defender Jee Park says it is unclear how much more OPD will receive in FY 2017. But the office is already bracing for the financial crisis.

“The number of cases we’ll be able to handle is going to decrease significantly. It would mean that more individuals are placed on wait lists. We’ll be declining to represent people. We’ll be declining [court] appointments,” Park told ThinkProgress. “We’re going to see…a lot of poor people not getting representation they deserve at first appearances, at arraignments.”

OPD currently manages 22,000 cases every year, and 12 attorneys and staff members have left since last July. The office has had to stop taking new clients arrested for felonies because there are simply too many people to defend.

As a result, poor people have no representation in court, investigations are drawn out to the point where key evidence is lost, and many defendants don’t have anyone to negotiate bond for them.

The ACLU recently told the Guardian that people are already languishing in the local jail because they have no counsel. A new round of cuts will make this a reality for additional defendants.

“In Orleans, we already have dozens of people held in jail for weeks on end without conviction and with no way of getting themselves out. We are literally trapping people in jail with no way out,” ACLU attorney Brandon Buskey explained.

OPD previously implemented a hiring freeze to minimize costs, so nobody will be hired in the near future to help chip away at the enormous caseload. Should OPD’s funding decrease drastically, more attorneys could be let go, Park says.

Criminalized For Being Kids

OPD is charged with defending adults — including 17-year-olds who are considered adults under Louisiana law — and kids who have been funneled to adult court. But children charged with crimes will also languish under the new budget shortfall.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) acts as the primary juvenile defense group in New Orleans, handling approximately 1000 cases each year. In a worst case scenario, LCCR will have to wait list 500 to 650 kids. Consequently, hundreds will be detained without any form of representation.

“If we suffer the full 65 percent cut that we’ve been threatened with, at least half of the children who are prosecuted in Orleans Parish will be put on a wait list and will go without timely representation by lawyers, investigators, and social workers,” Executive Director Josh Perry told ThinkProgress. “That will have a deeply negative affect on the children, on the court system, and on public safety.”

The city’s juvenile detention facility, the Youth Study Center, is already overcrowded by 20 percent.

“Court dockets will be log jammed. Cases won’t move. Detention centers and secure custody facilities will quickly fill up. And the result of all of that is a waste of state and local dollars and deeply negative effects on life outcomes for children,” Perry said.

The overwhelming majority — 81 percent — of juvenile arrests in New Orleans are for nonviolent offenses that don’t involve firearms. Nearly 45 percent are for minor offenses, such as theft, disturbing the peace, or drug possession. One-quarter of the kids who end up in juvenile court are arrested for an offense at school.

Without a defender to keep them out of detention, children will ultimately be thrown into juvenile facilities and criminalized for acting like children. In New Orleans, a kid who enters the juvenile justice system falls an average of two years behind in school. And more generally, youths who spend time in detention for low-level offenses are more likely to become career criminals.

A child can’t be detained forever. After thirty days without going to trial, he or she is automatically released. However, the damage lasts much longer.

“In practical terms, if a child is sitting in a detention center without a lawyer, that child’s case can’t move forward. The child is missing school. The child is out of his community and separated from parents,” Perry concluded. “Innocent children won’t have their rights vindicated.”

And ironically, routing more kids to juvenile facilities will come with a high price tag. According to LCCR, Louisiana spends $300 on each detained kid for every day they’re held.