Public Defenders Say They're Overloaded; Ask Judge For Help

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans lawyers who defend the poor said Friday that they're overloaded and are asking a judge to stop assigning cases to them.

         The deputy head of the Orleans Public Defenders office, Jee Park, spoke during a court hearing called by Judge Arthur L. Hunter to look into the challenges the office is facing.

         The public defenders represent 85 percent of people in the city accused of crimes, but the office has undergone years of budget cuts that supporters say are now leaving them unable to do their job.

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         "They're not shirking their responsibilities. There just isn't enough time in the day," said Park. "The basic fact is that we need more attorneys and more investigators and until we get those resources, we cannot take on more cases."

         Hunter called the hearing after reading an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by one of the office's public defenders, saying her caseload was double the recommendation of the American Bar Association and outlining the challenges the office was facing.

         Hunter has another day of hearings on Monday before he'll make a decision on whether to grant the request.

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         Derwyn Bunton, who heads the public defenders' office, says they have gone from having a roughly $9 million budget in 2010 to about $6 million this year after repeated budget cuts, including some this year, and a drop in funding from fines and fees — traffic tickets for example — that make up a significant part of their budget.

         "If I thought it was temporary or reform was foreseeable, we wouldn't be here," Bunton said after the hearing. "We're finally at this tipping point where we can't handle all the work that is coming into the jurisdiction."

         He said once Hunter makes a decision they would decide whether to ask the same of other judges. If their request is rejected, Bunton said they would review their options but that it would "likely spark more litigation."

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         Hunter, a former police officer who later became a lawyer and then a judge, is a close observer of the city's public defenders' office.

         In 2012, when the office was going through a similar budget crisis and laid off lawyers, he appointed high-profile attorneys from the city to represent some defendants.

         One of the witnesses during the court hearing Friday drew a stark picture of the challenges the office was facing. Prof. Ellen Yaroshefsky, from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the lawyers at OPD are diligent and work many hours but are overloaded.

         Many are unable to see their clients within 48 hours of them being arrested, which is crucial for tracking down witnesses and alibis, Yaroshefsky said. She added that there is minimal investigation of cases and while the most serious ones get attention, the others are ignored.

         "If we're going to call this a justice system, it has to be a justice system," she said.

         – by AP Reporter Rebecca Santana




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