As anyone who's ever watched a cop drama knows, if you're charged with a serious crime in America, you have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you, most likely from your city's public defender office.
In New Orleans, that changed this morning.
Public defenders in New Orleans say they will begin refusing new cases involving serious felonies starting today, including cases that involve the possibility of a life sentence without parole. Why? Because the funding situation has gotten so dire for public defense in Louisiana that the Orleans Parish Public Defenders office can no longer undertake an adequate defense for people charged with the most serious crimes.
"We simply don't have the resources to provide representation for any more of those types of cases," said Lindsey Hortenstine, spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defenders. "These people are facing so much time in prison, to make sure they receive an adequate defense requires a huge effort, and that's something we can't do right now."
When the next serious charge is brought against an indigent individual in New Orleans parish, the defender's office will file a standard motion refusing to represent them. What happens next is unclear. The judge can find a lawyer willing to take on the case for the low amount the city will offer, or the judge could order the public defender's office to represent the individual. Either "fix" would give many defendants grounds to appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel, forcing the Louisiana criminal justice system to keep re-trying a case simply because it cannot adequately fund public defender offices.
"We've seen a serious attrition rate among senior attorneys," said Jee Park, Deputy District Defender at OPD, who explained that because of the budget cuts, as well as planned furloughs of staffers to cover costs, the office has shrunk while the caseloads haven't. In other words, the situation at a defender office that already averaged only seven minutes of preparation for every case has actually gotten worse.
"We realized that refusing cases from the very beginning was a much better solution than withdrawing from cases after they've begun," Park told VICE. "We want to let the judge know that there'd be no way we could represent a client in a constitutional manner. We don't want to just be partnered with a client solely because the judge wants to keep the case moving."
The OPD isn't the first public defender office in America that has resorted to refusing cases in response to budget cuts. In 2008, the Miami-Dade County public defender's office in Florida began refusing new cases, which led to a court battle that was taken all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which in 2013 ruled that defenders could in fact refuse new cases if their caseloads proved too burdensome.
The budget for OPD was further slashed by $700,000 for this year compared to 2015. The office is hoping Louisiana's brand new governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, will push for more money for the OPD during a special legislative session in February.
"We should only be allowed to handle the cases that we can actually handle," Par said. "The state has a responsibility to provide representation to individuals. Now, the state really has to make a decision about how they're going to do that."
The Orleans Parish District Attorney's office has yet to respond to VICE's request for comment.