NEW ORLEANS - Following favorable support from the Criminal Justice Committee, the full Council approved two measures during today's regular meeting, delivering on a commitment to thoughtfully examine the City's criminal legal system for opportunities to reduce inequity.
Ordinance 33,093 attempts to reduce the funding disparity whereby the District Attorney's Office receives two dollars in City funds for every dollar received by the Public Defender's Office, not including the significant in-kind support provided to the City's prosecutors and the supplemental resources of the Police Department.
Council President Jason Williams, who introduced the legislation as chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, applauded the unanimous vote, saying:
"The continued funding crisis at the New Orleans Public Defender's Office is unacceptable. A metaphorical fire has been raging for years, and they've sounded the alarm to no avail. This office, unlike almost any other, on a yearly basis deals with the constant stress of not knowing if they will have funding to complete the year or when they might have to tell employees already struggling to make ends meet that they have been laid off. That annual reality for the office and the families represented there has repeatedly unaddressed. Lack of constitutional funding and the associated downstream impacts leave lives in the balance. This 'ordinary injustice,' which has been normalized in courts across this country, often leads to life-disrupting, costly and tragic outcomes.
Defenders perform a job where glory isn't commonplace because you represent those who are imperfect and treated as other in the eyes of society. There is the constant stress of knowing the volume of cases on your docket makes it a literal impossibility that each person will get what he or she deserves. Many struggle with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and minimal pay compared to peers in the profession."
Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton weighed in on the monumental legislation, saying:
"Passing this ordinance does more than just help make our constitution real. It does more than make OPD's resources more predictable, more adequate. It is also the right thing to do, a small nod to our ancestors and heroes who worked for and died for equity and fairness in every facet of our lives - especially within the criminal legal system. In addition to the disadvantage of receiving less than half the dollars of the District Attorney's Office, Public Defenders see that gap widen exponentially when other perks received by the DA are revealed. Public Defenders do not receive City or State medical benefits, nor City or State pension benefits. They have no access to other important privileges provided for the DA, such as office space and access to transportation for investigation and client visits. They are clearly out resourced and outmatched when you consider the arsenal of investigators at the District Attorney's disposal on top of already existing police officer resources."
Councilmember Williams concluded, saying:
"This is a real opportunity to balance the scales of justice. Some of us have been fortunate to never find ourselves as unwilling participants in the criminal legal system. Most of us never have to suffer the inconvenience of seeing beyond those towering concrete walls in that Tulane and Broad compound. This action isn't being done to give anything, extra, or even to provide a deserving award for valiantly performing their duties and continuing vigorous advocacy against all odds. We're simply asking that a constitutional obligation be fulfilled so we don't lose more poor and innocent lives due lack of funding."
Attorney Meghan Garvey also praised the Council on behalf of the Orleans Parish Defenders Office, saying:
"Mandating parity shows that we as a city care about all of our people, not just those with money. Mandating parity shows that we believe that our citizens are deserving of justice and constitutional protections, even when they may struggle with the system, with mental health issues, with finances. We understand that we made this ask in a time of austerity, and believe that it is in times of great need that we should reevaluate our priorities as a community. Today we have taken a step in realigning our values to better meet this moment."
Resolution R-20-192 states the Council's objection to the continuation of the "user-pay" system that has existed for generations and incentivizes the transition away from the oppressive culture that has permeated the system for decades.
According to Vera Institute, financial obstacles may appear at both the start and disposition of a particular case in the form of bail fees and fees associated with conviction. Approximately 30% of people in jail on a given day are there not because they pose a threat to society or because they have a violent case for which detaining them might make sense but simply because they cannot afford to pay money bail for their release.
Fines and fees added at the conclusion of a case as a condition of an offenders punishment have been very detrimental to household finances and have branded numerous New Orleanians with a debt they are unable to overcome.
Director of the Vera Institute Will Snowden provided additional context, saying:
"This connection between wealth and freedom has historical ties we all need to mindful of. There has to be an understanding that the number of coins you have in your pocket shouldn't necessarily determine the number of keys you have to freedom out of the system. We have to remember that 85% of the people who come through the Court are represented by a public defender. That is essentially a de facto ability to pay determination. If those individuals cannot pay for their lawyer they almost certainly won't have the ability to pay these particular fees."
District "C" Councilmember and co-sponsor of the resolution Kristin Gisleson Palmer expressed her support, saying:
"Today's resolution showed this Council's commitment to hearing and acting upon the desires of those that filled the streets of cities and towns across the country this summer. We must make real structural changes to our criminal justice system if we are ever going to see progress. Eliminating overly punitive fines and fees is an important step in that process."
Councilmember Williams affirmed his commitment to this issue, saying:
"The so-called "user-pay" system, whereby fines and fees collected from offenders subsequently fund the courts, has created long-lasting economic inequities for scores of New Orleans families. Though the courts have reportedly taken incremental steps to address the conflict of interest identified by the federal court, decisive action is needed to stop the predatory practice and permanently resolve the conflict.
Today is a day to be proud of, where a clear signal is sent that we refuse to participate in a scheme borne of the same patent inequity our system has historically perpetuated against marginalized people. The data is clear that these financial penalties do little to ensure safety and have a disparate impact on poor communities and communities of color.
If the amount of money you have can determine your fate in a criminal matter, we must ask ourselves whether we are truly punishing guilt or whether, as the numbers show, we are criminalizing race, ethnicity and poverty. Now is the right time. We can always find a reason to delay delivering critically needed change for the people in most need of it. At some point, our actions have to align with what we say we know to be moral and fair.
On this same day that we unburdened our streets of one of the most prominent vestiges of the racist Confederacy by renaming Jefferson Davis to Norman C. Francis Parkway, we acted to bury another hallmark of white supremacy and oppression on black and brown lives by resolving funding inequity in public defense and addressing the systemic stripping of financial viability through fines and fees."
Keith D. Lampkin
Office of Jason R. Williams, Council-At-Large