NEW ORLEANS - Council President Jason Williams was proud to join allies from the Orleans Public Defenders’ Office (OPD) today for a press conference to discuss approval of a historic City Budget amendment relative to funding parity for OPD and the District Attorney (DA) in the coming year.
With its adoption of the 2021 Operating and Capital Budgets for the City of New Orleans during yesterday’s regular meeting, the Council took a significant step forward toward rectifying decades of inequity relative to the budget of the Orleans Public Defenders and that of the DAs.
In August, the Council passed Ordinance 33,093 advocating on behalf of OPD and recommending it be allocated 85% of what the DA's Office is allotted. Throughout this year’s budget hearings, Councilmember Williams has worked diligently alongside his colleagues on the Council, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and OPD to reach that goal.
The approved amendment, which received unanimous support from the Council, will bring the parity amount to 65%, representing a compromise between the amount recommended by the Council and that of the Administration in its proposed 2021 budget. This measure is not intended to rescind or replace Ordinance 33,093, but rather, it reflects the need to do right by our Public Defenders while also recognizing the City’s dire fiscal situation due to the ongoing economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is a promise made and a promise kept. The fight for a fully funded public defenders office has been a long and emotional fight. The lack of justice system fairness has been the driving force behind New Orleans’ record shattering wrongful conviction and exoneration rates which have repeatedly and disproportionately ravaged families of this city," said Council President Jason Williams. "Today is actually the 5 year anniversary of exoneration and freedom of Mr. Robert Jones. A fully funded Public Defenders Office could have halted Roberts tragedy. Public Defenders are on the front lines of the fight for a population which is too often discounted and voiceless."
“An effective defense for all is essential for a constitutional and effective system of justice. Reaching for parity here helps ensure rights are protected and fair justice is administered," said Council Vice President Helena Moreno.
"For decades, our criminal justice system has favored the wealthy over the poor, and the City's budget reflected that ideology. I believe properly funding the Public Defender's Office will go a long way toward creating a more just and balanced criminal justice system that provides adequate representation for every person, regardless of income," said District "C" Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
“Yesterday the City Council took a courageous and critical step toward fairness, equity and justice and sent a message to our community that their voices were heard. For too long, New Orleans’ legal system has remained unfair and unbalanced – favoring incarceration and furthering the systemic and racial disparities baked into it. New Orleans deserves a legal system that values all New Orleanians. Our community deserves zealous representation that doesn’t hinge on how much money is in their pocket. We recognize these are extraordinarily difficult times for the city and are grateful to the Council, and to Council President Jason Williams, for recognizing the critical need for equity,” said OPD Director of Communications and Development Lindsey Hortenstine.
"This is a statement by the City of New Orleans and this Council that the city is committed to fixing structural inequities and disparities in its budget. It begins to fix decades old and entrenched problems. It took a lot of hard work and leadership that we as a city are going to work toward equity, justice and fairness," said OPD Deputy Chief Defender Danny Engelberg.
"This victory is personal to me. I was released from prison five years ago today after being fully exonerated. I know the very real harms caused by a poorly funded public defender. This is a victory for our entire community," said OPD Director of Public Engagement Robert Jones.
Williams concluded, "Every year there are competing emergencies that vie for limited government funds but this year was exceptional by almost every rubric. The $100m across the board cut threatened funding for a number of critical departments and services. But this need is on par with our most basic necessities because of how many families are impacted and the fiscal strain that we will certainly suffer when thousands of new cases clog up our system when there are no lawyers to handle them. Thank you to all those public defenders, past and present, who have made great sacrifices to defend the constitution."
Keith D. Lampkin
Chief of Staff
Office of Jason R. Williams, Council-At-Large
Director of Communications and Development
Orleans Public Defenders
(404) 520-3087 cell