The Case for Community Defense in New Orleans

December 31, 2006

New Orleans’s system of public defense is broken. This much has been known for a long time. The city’s provision of counsel to its criminally accused poor has been condemned by entities ranging from the Louisiana Supreme Court to the Louisiana State Bar Association; the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. In the words of Calvin Johnson, former chief judge of the New Orleans criminal court, “[t]he public defender situation was bad before [Hurricane] Katrina. Now it’s a full-blown disaster.”

The city’s predicament, then, is less one of identifying the problem than of deciding what to do about it. New Orleans, and in particular the Board of the Orleans Public Defender (BOPD), has two clear options before it: (1) focus strictly on the structural issues of funding, vertical representation, caseload limits, and the like, or (2) work from the outset to establish a model community defender office that will address clients’ needs inside and outside the courtroom. Though there are many strong arguments to support the former course of action, this report concludes that the latter is the best option if the city hopes to stanch the excessive flow of cases running through its criminal justice system, cut costs, and address the most exigent problems experienced by its former clients. Building a strong system of community defense today will help prevent more onerous and expensive steps tomorrow.

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