The New Orleans Public Defender's office has said that, due to budget cuts, they are going to stop defending those idigents charged with crimes like rape and murder. This announcement may sound more like bombast than substance, but it ties into many important issues facing our criminal justice system from a policy standpoint.
My thoughts on this are rather extensive, and I hope our in-house attorney (Sprout) will share his thoughts on this matter as well.
While the knee jerk "My-tax-dollars-shouldn't-pay-for-criminal-defense" crowd will think this is a good thing, our legal system says quite another. Without access to a defense attorney, charges of rape and murder brought against indigents will have to be dropped. It doesn't matter if the DA's office is on the ball (finally) in getting cases together and prosectuing criminals. If there is no defender to represent them, a public defender if they cannot afford their own, they walk.
I have several thoughts on this issue.
First of all, this is why we have to take indigent defense seriously at all levels of government. This is one of those government responsibilities that should have concensus. Without adequate representation, our common law says we let those charged with crimes go, because we are a nation of laws. It is no wonder that entities with problems paying for indigent defense have deeply flawed criminal justice systems.
Second, shame on the Public Defender's office for playing politics with this issue. Especially if you plan to play politics in uncreative ways that agitate the general public and turn them against you. I have a gut feeling this is one of those plays to smear the City Council's stand on making the city budget work, which is why the statement itself is so inflammatory.
For example, if this was really about securing adequate funding for the Public Defender's office, instead of not defending major crime cases, they would state their intention to defend ONLY major crime cases, because that is the most supportive of public safety and in the interests of justice. Keep the system moving on the dangerous, high impact stuff.
Stop all defense of minor drug possession offenses, non-DUI traffic offenses or whatever non-violent municipal violations are taking up your work load. Let folks charged with non-violent offenses walk. That makes up the majority of your workload anyway, so cutting time spent in those areas would both endear you to the public (for prioritizing correctly) and strike back at the city that uses such offenses mainly to collect fines.
You'll also start emptying Orleans Parish Prison of minor offenders, freeing up space for those charged with major crimes.
(As an aside, this should be even more evidence that criminal prosecutions are prioritized inefficiently by the local system. That we go after non-violent offenders so hard in a violent crime plauged city suggests there is an underlying, foundational flaw.)
Third, where the heck is the state in all of this, as they are the ones who should be responsible for the Public Defender's budget?
Fourth, this is why social scientists talk about the "tiered" criminal justice system, where indigent defenders end up represented poorly in certain locales. It may not have to do with the dedication or ability of the public defender themselves, it has to do with not having enough hands on the work and hours in the day.
Such inefficiency at the hands of government undermines the interests of justice. With insufficient defense, innocent people can get convicted and guitly folks can have their convictions overturned on appeal (for insufficient defense). Credibility of the system becomes strained and this leads to an even less robust system.