Strapped for resources, public defenders fight for a share of local budgets

December 17, 2019
Prism

Right now, countless indigent defendants in New Orleans, Louisiana, have been sitting in jail for weeks or even months as they wait to be appointed counsel. At the same time, the city’s public defender’s office is desperately fighting for a higher budget. Without one, the fate of confined citizens awaiting trial—mostly from communities of color—is unclear and bleak.

More than three years after the Louisiana Public Defender Board was sued for putting clients on a waitlist due to an attorney shortage, public defenders in New Orleans are still fighting for increased funding. The Supreme Court has long recognized that criminal defendants facing jail time who can’t afford an attorney have the right to be appointed counsel at the government’s expense. However, actually gaining access to such counsel can be difficult, especially if a person lives in a county with an underfunded or nonexistent public defender’s office.

“Public defenders are uniquely situated in our adversarial system to intervene at points where it really matters for clients,” said Premal Dharia, the founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative, an organization that works to transform the criminal justice system by collaborating with public defenders. “[Public defenders] hold prosecutors and police accountable by bringing to light issues of police misconduct that we now know often lead to wrongful convictions. Only public defenders can have a real impact in terms of people being able to return to their communities. They can change the course of cases.”