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Inside New Orleans public defenders’ decision to refuse felony cases

  • How do 50 lawyers handle 22,000 cases? They can’t. New Orleans public defenders say the criminal justice system needs urgent reform.
  • New Orleans public defenders admit they’ve not been able to adequately represent all their clients and innocent people have gone to jail.
  • “A lawyer poorly resourced can cause irreparable harm to a client,” says Chief NOLA Public Defender Derwyn Bunton.

Nine current and former New Orleans public defenders admit they do not have the time or the budget to adequately represent every client.

CBS News

In the past year hundreds of people accused of crimes in New Orleans have been stuck in jail — defenseless — denied their constitutional right to a lawyer.

It’s happening because the city’s public defenders, attorneys who are supposed to represent those who can’t afford private lawyers, have been staging a kind of protest. They say they are so overworked and underfunded, they don’t have the time or resources to defend their clients properly, so they have been refusing to represent people charged with some of the most serious crimes – rapes, robberies, and murder. 

The man who made this startling decision is the chief public defender Derwyn Bunton. He says he didn’t have a choice because the criminal justice system in America is so broken, it’s become just a criminal processing system.

New Orleans Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton

CBS News

Anderson Cooper: What does that mean, a processing system?

Derwyn Bunton: Think about “I Love Lucy.” They have that, that famous scene where she and Ethel are trying to wrap chocolates. And their job is grab the chocolates, and wrap ‘em, then get ‘em back on the conveyor belt. Our criminal justice system has become something of a conveyor belt that starts with you arrested. And then there’s hands that touch you on the way to prison. It is not about figuring out at any point your innocence. Should you even be on this conveyor belt, no matter what you did?”

“You do your best, but a lot of times you can’t provide the kind of representation that the Constitution, our code of ethics and professional standards would have you provide.” Derwyn Bunton

Anderson Cooper: That’s a pretty frightening picture you paint. I mean, that’s not a justice system. That’s a system sending people to prison.

Derwyn Bunton: And that’s what we’re fighting to change.

Derwyn Bunton has been head of the New Orleans Public Defenders’ office for the last eight years. The 52 lawyers on his staff are responsible for representing more than 20,000 people a year who are unable to afford a private attorney.

Anderson Cooper: How do 50 attorneys handle 22,000 cases?

Derwyn Bunton: You do your best, but a lot of times you can’t provide the kind of representation that the Constitution, our code of ethics and…

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