Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition

A new $1.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant could give New Orleans’ public defenders, and its incarcerated citizens, some relief.

New Orleans public defender Dylan Duffey is facing trial on April 15 for the offense of advocating too hard for his client, a homeless man arrested on simple cocaine possession charges. According to a release from the Orleans Public Defenders office, Duffey asked Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell to reduce his client’s $5,000 bond, arguing that the defendant was not a flight risk and deserved to enter a substance abuse treatment program rather than jail. Duffey was even able to secure spots in two different drug treatment programs for his client. These requests ruffled the judge, who refused to decrease the bond, and in turn placed Duffey on trial for contempt of court.

This is just the latest scuffle in the broader fight in New Orleans over reforming its severely broken criminal justice system. Public defenders have been going on the offense against local judges and district attorneys who’ve helped turn incarceration into one of New Orleans’ premiere industries over the past few decades.

The majority of the city’s defendants generally qualify as low-income, so the bulk of the city’s criminal defense work falls on public defenders. New Orleans public defender Tina Peng wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that while the American Bar Association recommends that no more than 150 felony cases a year be assigned to indigent-defense lawyers, she handled double that number in 2014. And the funding stream to to perform their work remains unsustainable and inadequate.

“If you’re poor, you have a right to jail,”said New Orleans Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton in an emailed statement from his office about the Duffey case. “And your attorney certainly doesn’t have the right to fight for your well-being.”

This is why New Orleans “is the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world,” as Mayor Mitch Landrieu has puts it. Of the city’s local inmate population, 80 percent are sitting in jail awaiting a trial. They are there because they couldn’t post bond, secure a lawyer, or because their attorneys are so inundated with cases that they’re incapable of setting up hearings in a timely fashion. It also means that they’re presumed innocent and haven’t been proven guilty, but are imprisoned nonetheless.  

The city is hoping it can fix these problems with a new $1.5 million grant it received this week from the MacArthur Foundation, which has been helping get cities out of the incarceration business. New Orleans will apply the MacArthur money towards its efforts to reduce its average daily jail population by 27 percent over the next three years. Under a new jail reform plan, the city is pushing criminal justice officials to rethink arrest policies and to consider defendants’ incomes when assessing bonds.  The plan also calls for new systems that will divert people with mental health and drug abuse problems to medical rehabilitative services rather than jail, and for increased “defense advocacy for pretrial arrestees.”

For decades, New Orleans has been seeped in a culture of over-incarceration, and one with a ravenous appetite for imprisoning black people and the poor. While African Americans are only 60 percent of New Orleans’ population, they make up 86 percent of its jail population, and are arrested for felonies at 2.5 times the rate as whites. To fix this:

The City will create tracking and accountability mechanisms focused on disparities, and continue to engage the community in developing solutions. The City will also roll out Implicit Bias Trainings, where criminal justice system decision makers will have the opportunity to share experiences and discuss biases in the system. Finally, the City will instruct its officers to rely less on individual’s past criminal records when making detention decisions for low-level offenses, which has been shown to perpetuate biases and contribute to disparities in the system, and instead increase detention alternatives for detainees with prior convictions.

The MacArthur grant could create demand-side relief by helping to lighten public defenders’ caseloads. However, $1.5 million is not enough to fix the problem: The New Orleans’ public defenders office is short $600,000 dollars this year alone, which is why it has started to refuse new cases. The financially beleaguered state is floating legislation to increase funding for indigent defense, but it originally projected to cut the state’s public defender board by over $20 million for 2017.

The thwarted efforts of public defender Duffey to secure rehabilitative services for his homeless client are indicative of just how much rehabilitation the New Orleans court system needs. As MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch said in a press statement about the grants, “The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color.”

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