New Orleans court lands a punch in favor of public defense, while voters reject the "more police" solution
On Friday, Louisiana’s choice to deny people the constitutional right to counsel by underfunding the public defenders reached a critical decision. Judge Arthur Hunter has ordered the release of people where the state failed to provide a capable attorney. This will certainly send shockwaves through the offices of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Attorney General Jeff Landry, and the state legislature. The order is stayed, pending review of higher courts.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, the voters of New Orleans rejected a proposal for more funding for more police. Many people have been outspoken that we need solutions to the root causes of instability, rather than putting more cops on the street to round up people affected by systemic problems. The timing of Hunter's ruling and the people's vote shows a ripple of change in the way we have been doing criminal justice in New Orleans.
Judge Hunter correctly pointed out that merely appointing attorneys, without providing proper resources, “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.” To illustrate his point of the true crisis in the system (not just the money), the ruling reprints, in full, public defender Tina Peng’s grueling letter about what it looks like to represent several hundred people at a time, where nine investigators are tasked with 18,000 cases per year. Knowing many public defenders and many people charged with crimes makes reading Ms. Peng’s letter feels like watching a schoolyard brawl between your two best friends- where everybody is losing. The lapse in quality representation is grueling on our community, but these idealistic attorneys have been drowning in their valiant attempts to do as much as they can within a system that has been designed for them to fail.
One could argue we reached the appropriate moment for this argument over underfunding decades ago, when crime bills increased the budgets of police forces, funded more prosecutors, created more courts, built more prisons, and left the defense side out in the cold. Regardless of how long we have choked off the Sixth Amendment, we are here now.
One manner of reducing this systematic violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel would be to release more people on bond, or even better, on a promise to appear in court. There are people in the city jail who can’t afford their bond, and people who are not allowed bond despite the fact that their accusation is a technical violation of their probation (meaning: no new crime, just something like a missed drug test or sleeping at their girlfriend’s house instead of their official residence).
Similarly, a lawyer can’t be expected to effectively represent someone who is being held five hours away- so Judge Hunter’s order would seemingly fit perfectly for the hundreds of people sitting upstate and awaiting the Sheriff’s deputies to drive all the way up there and all the way back for a court date, billing the taxpayers gas money that could instead be going to a defense investigator who can talk to witnesses and gather evidence.
Once the city stops petty prosecutions the overall caseload will come down for all. If Saturday's vote was to fund a public works jobs program, or an army of PTSD social workers, or a mental health facility not staffed by law enforcement- crime would have gone down and the people may have voted for it. But when the District Attorney seeks a life sentence for a stolen candy bar- suddenly that defense team must treat the case like a capital case, no differently than if it were a murder case.
Once the jail population is reduced to people awaiting trial who represent only genuine imminent threats, charged with actual serious crimes, then there is plenty of room and, more likely, plenty of money. And that money can be used to address the systemic roots of community instability, and not just for more sets of handcuffs.