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Need A Public Defender In New Orleans? Get In Line

When you enter the lobby of the Orleans Public Defender's Office, expect a bit of a wait, because receptionist Chastity Tillman will likely be busy on the phone.

"The jail calls. We get them every second," Tillman says.

Jailed suspects call to get their court dates and to see a lawyer. But for those accused of the most serious of crimes, there will be no visit from an attorney; no help in negotiating a bond; no investigation into their alleged offense. Public defenders say they don't have the resources to handle the city's indigent caseload after a million-dollar budget shortfall.

So they are turning away some who can't afford to pay for their own legal representation.

"And without that, there could be evidence that [goes] missing. There could be videos that are erased or taped over. Witnesses' memories fade," says Orleans Deputy District Defender Jee Park. "So there are many unfortunate circumstances that can arise if you don't have an attorney who is working on your case right away from Day 1."

This office handled 22,000 cases last year. Now, there's a waiting list for felony suspects who've been granted a court-appointed lawyer.

"We know that we cannot accept those appointments and know that we're going to do ethical, constitutional representation," Park says.

That's left those suspects in limbo. And there is no backup, says Marjorie Esman with the ACLU of Louisiana. "People are going to be languishing in jail. It's gonna backlog the court system for who knows how long until this can be resolved," she says.

The ACLU has filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of suspects who can't afford their own lawyers. Esman says they have a constitutional right to legal representation.

"That's why we have what's supposed to be a robust system of public defenders throughout this country is to make sure that before the government can take away your liberty and lock you away, you have a lawyer to defend you," she says.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. It also has one of the highest rates of exonerations.

Statewide, public defenders in about 12 districts say they don't have the resources to keep up. Six have taken the extraordinary step that the Orleans Public Defenders' Office has: putting some suspects on a waiting list for counsel. Esman says it's the state's responsibility to adequately fund public defense.

Louisiana's new governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, acknowledges the public defender overload. But he says there's no plan for more funding with the state facing a $1.9 billion budget shortfall.

"There's more budgetary pressure than we've ever had in the history of the state," Edwards says.

"We are committed to trying to make sure that public defenders are adequately funded so that we don't get to the place that perhaps the Supreme Court would step in and talk about inadequate defense and what that might do to our criminal justice system. We certainly need to avoid that," Edwards says.

The crisis point is near, warns state public defender James Dixon.

"We're not the only agency in trouble, clearly, but now we're in federal court," Dixon says. "If the feds fix it, it won't be gentle. I'd rather we fix this. This is something the state should fix."

Dixon says what's broken is the way Louisiana pays for public defense. Much of the funding comes from local traffic tickets and court costs, an unstable source. When receipts are down, public defenders lay off lawyers, and caseloads creep up to constitutionally questionable levels.

Dixon says if the state doesn't make indigent defense a priority, a federal judge may soon force it to.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.