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National

New Orleans Public Defenders Refuse New Cases To Highlight Underfunding

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Attorneys at the New Orleans public defender's office are taking a drastic step - they're refusing to take certain felony cases. That's because they say budget cuts have left them overwhelmed.

DERWYN BUNTON: We handle somewhere between 20 and 21,000 cases a year. Right now we have about 47 lawyers.

CORNISH: That's Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender in the city, and he says refusing clients is a way to force some attention on the issue. It has got the attention of the ACLU. They're now suing the public defender's office. I spoke with Bunton earlier today, and I asked him which cases his office is refusing.

BUNTON: We're going to begin refusing cases, many at the top end. So the more serious cases, the more complex cases because those need experienced attorneys, and those attorneys have been resigning from our office at a rate higher than we have predicted and we're in a hiring freeze so we can't replace them.

CORNISH: So people with complex, difficult cases - what happens to those people? Are they just stuck in jail the meantime?

BUNTON: That's exactly what happens. They wait. They wait for resources to be applied and allocated to their cases, or they'll wait for the court to appoint pro bono lawyers to handle their cases to get them moving.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, the ACLU is suing your office over this, but you've actually called this lawsuit a chance for reform. That's not usually the response from people who are getting sued. Explain.

BUNTON: Well, no one likes to be sued, but I've been critical of our system for a long time now. We have the only user-pay criminal justice system in the United States, and it's inadequate, unreliable and unstable. And this is simply evidence of that. We depend on fines, fees and costs paid by people going through our criminal justice system to actually operate our criminal justice system. So I'm hoping that with this lawsuit, we have an engaged and real discussion about how to reform that system and have decision-makers really paying attention.

CORNISH: But you mentioned people having to wait in the meantime. Is this fair to them?

BUNTON: What you have to understand is that this is about the integrity of our practice and it's about our ability to provide quality representation to poor people. It's about whether or not the state of Louisiana is going to provide support for the Sixth Amendment, the right to counsel. It's not game playing. It's, ethically, we are trying to be responsible.

CORNISH: Derwyn Bunton, I guess it's one thing to explain in a lawsuit, another thing to explain to a reporter. How are you explaining to families that you're having to turn away?

BUNTON: It is really difficult. The ethos in our office is to help folks. You don't become a public defender to turn cases away. But when you get to a point where you are doing more harm than good, you have to begin to take action. We recently had a case of someone charged with a very serious crime and their family was able to find a private lawyer. That person asserted their innocence throughout. That private lawyer was able to go to Houston and find the surveillance footage from the mall where he was shopping with his girlfriend. And I looked at that case and I said, I'm not sure with our resources we would've made to Houston in time, and so he would either be facing life in prison or an incredibly oppressive plea because we didn't have the resources to save that innocent man. And that was terrifying to me. And that's how we explain it to clients and families - we cannot be complicit in something like that.

CORNISH: Derwyn Bunton, he's chief public defender for New Orleans.

Thank you for speaking with us.

BUNTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.