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New Orleans’ justice system is starting to break down

Louisiana’s budget crisis has left the city scrambling.

The public defender’s office in the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALEX BRANDON
The public defender’s office in the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALEX BRANDON

A New Orleans judge on Friday ordered the release of seven inmates awaiting trial because Louisiana’s budget crisis has left the city with no money to defend them.

The seven inmates, who all serious felony charges including murder and aggravated rape, were all deemed indigent, according to the New Orleans Advocate. Most have spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial and have gone months waiting for legal help, their attorneys said.

In his order, the Orleans Parish judge ruled that keeping the men in jail without funding for their defense violates their Sixth Amendment rights.

New Orleans’ public defense budget has been slashed every year since 2010, but the latest round of cuts were the most drastic yet. In March, the city’s public defenders were bracing for a 63 percent cut to their funding, and Deputy Chief Defender Jee Park said it was unclear how much more Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) would receive in FY 2017.

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

The OPD recently decided to refuse to take on any new felony cases, and private attorneys — who aren’t well versed in criminal law — have been forced to pick up the workload. So far, more than 110 cases have been refused or put on a waitlist, according to Fusion.

The situation is decimating the city which has the highest incarceration rate in Louisiana, a state with the highest incarceration rate in the country. Eight in ten defendants across Louisiana qualify for free legal representation.

Fusion reported this week that one New Orleans public defender is currently assigned to about 150 open felony cases at the same time. “In some cases, he can only spend a few minutes talking with clients before he has to start representing them,” Fusion’s Casey Tolan wrote. “Thanks to years of ever-deeper funding cuts and staff reductions, [Thomas] Frampton and other public defenders in the city typically handle 300 different felony cases every year, compared to the national standard of a maximum of 150 cases.”

There are only 42 attorneys working for the OPD, down from more than 70 five years ago.

Most of OPD’s $5.7 million budget comes from fines and court fees, with just $1.8 million coming from the city in FY 2016. That small chunk of money has to cover salaries for attorneys, investigators, and support staff, as well as office operating costs.

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In his ruling Friday, Judge Arthur Hunter said that its unlawful to hold the seven men in jail without certainty of when the OPD would have the resources to take on their cases.

“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want?” he wrote. “One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”