My short bio: I’m Jed Lipinski, a reporter for | The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

I recently wrote a profile of Lauren Anderson, a staff attorney for the Orleans Public Defender’s office. Lauren is one of 42 public defenders left in New Orleans, where state budget cuts and an unstable local funding system have caused the office to turn down certain felony cases in which defendants face lengthy sentences.

As a result, around 110 indigent people accused of crimes in New Orleans have had their cases wait-listed or refused. More than 60 of them are now sitting in jail waiting for someone to appoint them a lawyer.

Claiming this violates indigent defendants Sixth Amendment rights, the ACLU sued the Orleans Public Defender in January. Because the office cannot afford to represent itself in the suit, they’ve recruited a local attorney to represent them for free.

My colleagues at | The Times-Picayune have covered the public defender crisis thoroughly over the last few months. In a recent development, lawmakers have proposed funding the office by taking money from death penalty appeals. And on Friday, a New Orleans judge stopped the prosecutions of seven indigent men who have languished for months without legal representation and ordered their release, though their charges have not been dismissed. You can find a list of recent stories here.

Chief defender Derwyn Bunton and Lauren Anderson will join me in answering questions you may have on the issue until 4:45 p.m. Friday. Thanks for having us.

My Proof:

UPDATE 5:00 pm: We're signing off for now but will try to address any other questions on Monday, April 11. Thanks for participating.

Comments: 118 • Responses: 6  • Date: 

MattBravGentilly23 karma

I used to work for the Orleans Public Defender's office and it sad to see such wonderful people and a great organization in such trouble.

My question is, besides the effort in the legislature to reallocate funds from death penalty appeal cases, are there other efforts by state legislators to create a permanent, stable source of funding for the office?

DBunton8 karma

I think momentum is building for change, but it likely won't happen in this legislative session. We're hopeful that once the state's overall funding crisis gets in the rear view mirror a bit we'll be able to have an engaged debate about funding reform for public defenders.

MattBravGentilly5 karma

Does anyone in Baton Rouge consider this a priority? Does the governor at least consider this to be an important issue?

Lauren_Anderson5 karma

Fixing mass incarceration, the multiple crises in the criminal justice system, and creating a fair system requires not only changes in sentencing reform, prison reform, etc. but funding reform for public defense. Many aspects of reform have been focused on but not public defense, which is vital for these things to change. Write Governor Edwards and let him know that.

MattBravGentilly3 karma

I will have to do that. Are there rallies or demonstrations planned for public defense during this legislative session?

jedlipinski8 karma

Gov. John Bel Edwards is proposing a 61.9% reduction to the Louisiana Public Defender Board budget. People in the state can write to their legislators and oppose such drastic cuts through this link:

jedlipinski1 karma

In response to whether folks in the state Legislature consider this a priority, our state politics reporter Julia O'Donoghue writes: "There are a few people, but it’s not a broad group at this point. It’s only a handful of legislators. It’s being discussed, but they are overwhelmed with other issues, such as seven of the nine hospitals that the state supports closing due to lack of funding, or universities going into financial exigency."

caerc808017 karma

How can the state keep people imprisoned if they don't have access to a fair trial? The ACLU's lawsuit makes no sense to me (not a lawyer) and why aren't they working to hold the parish/city/state accountable? At what point does it become unreasonable to hold a person a for a crime they haven't been convicted of and isn't this punishing people for being poor?

jedlipinski14 karma

In a ruling on Friday, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter suggested that holding a person for several months in jail without representation is unreasonable. He ordered that seven such men be released, though their charges won't be dismissed. Our criminal justice reporter Ken Daley wrote about this today:

areasonableusername9 karma

Thank you for the AMA and thank you for the incredibly important work you do!

  1. What will happen to your office and those accused of crimes in Orleans Parish if the ACLU suit or the LA legislature fail to change anything?

  2. What can regular folk do to help fix the funding crisis?

  3. Lastly, any advice for a law student trying to be a public defender?

jedlipinski4 karma

Here's a link to the donation page on the OPD's website:

stevenibanez6 karma

Has the ACLU's lawsuit against your office been a significant distraction or do you consider it a helpful tool to boost awareness of the funding issues you face?

DBunton12 karma

It's not a distraction, but it does require attention and work. I look at the lawsuit as an opportunity to implement solutions and make the right to a lawyer accessible and meaningful in Louisiana. No one likes to be sued but this lawsuit provides a potential vehicle for relief.

Atheist1012 karma

I seriously dont understand why the ACLU of all groups is suing another group who is being fucked by the government. Its honestly not your fault that you have to turn away people, theres just no man power or money left to handle all the cases. What does the ACLU think is going to happen even if they win? Its not like money magically will appear out of nowhere and everything will be perfect. Even if the people in jail are released by the court, the charges are still there and someone still has to defend and prosecute them. It seems like a bandage solution rather than one that gets at the heart of the problem...

Why dont they go after the government who is not properly funding the system? Them suing you guys seems like kicking a person when they are already down

jedlipinski13 karma

One goal, if not the main goal, of the lawsuit was to put pressure on the Legislature to repair the inadequate way it funds public defense in the state, which is primarily through court fines and fees. For example, defendants pay $40 for a public defender and an extra $45 if they're found or plead guilty. At the time the suit was filed, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, wrote this in a statement: "In Orleans Parish, as in the rest of Louisiana, funding for public defenders is inherently unreliable and prone to crippling shortages. To pay for public defense, the state relies on the fines and fees collected from the public for traffic tickets and other convictions — a system that makes public defenders dependent on excessive policing and draconian sentencing that work against the people they defend." Read more here:

tehmlem3 karma

Do you believe that this issue is unique to the Louisiana (or New Orleans) justice system, or simply a very visible symptom of national attitudes and practices?

Edit: Thanks for the reply. I'll have to look into the PA public defense situation more closely (it's hard to see anything in the PA justice system other than kids for cash and the fallout from AG Kane). A special thanks for for fighting a battle most people wouldn't touch with a 40 foot pole.

Edit Edit: Looks like the suit in the PA supreme court is still limping along. Fun fact: PA public defense funding is determined at the county level.

jedlipinski6 karma

The problem is particularly bad here, but it’s definitely not limited to New Orleans or Louisiana. The public defender’s office in Missouri recently warned that they too could face a federal lawsuit if things don’t improve. They’ve asked the state for a $25 million increase for the next fiscal year, but the governor’s budget proposal calls for just $1.5 million extra, according to

Derwyn wrote about how widespread the problem is in an Op-Ed for the New York Times here

“A 2013 study in Missouri provided a snapshot of the problem. For serious felonies, defenders spent an average of only nine hours preparing their cases; 47 hours were needed. For misdemeanors, they spent two hours when 12 hours were necessary...."

“The problem of grossly underfunded public defender organizations with grossly excessive caseloads is a systemic, endemic problem going back 50 years,” said Stephen F. Hanlon, general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense, who is overseeing the current studies.