No one listens to poor people. They listen to attorneys. As a child, I believed those two statements because I watched how people treated my family and others in our situation. It is why I became a public defender. The place of the public defender is to protect justice and fairness for those who cannot afford to purchase that protection. The mission of the Orleans Public Defenders is to provide high quality defense to people who qualify and it is my honor to be responsible for upholding that mission.
My office represents poor people. The definition of poor is not a mystery, and the process of a public defender being assigned to a case is likewise easy to describe because Louisiana took the time to define it in the law. Judges assign us after they determine a person is too poor to afford an attorney on their own. We do not shop for these cases.
When law and fairness demand it, we do fight – not to keep cases, but to insure justice. We fought for our client whose mother pawned her wedding ring so our client could get out and keep working. We fought for a man thrown in jail for not being able to afford a private attorney. We keep these cases and fight for our clients not because we make money for such a fight, but because it is the just and fair thing to do and the law tells us to do it. The amount of justice one receives should not depend on the amount of money in their pocket.
Our criminal justice system has made tremendous progress since hurricane Katrina brought justice to a standstill in New Orleans and highlighted deep systemic problems that existed for decades. The Orleans Public Defenders continues to play a central role in making sure fairness and balance are a part of justice in New Orleans.
We ask for resources so we can win the freedom of innocent men like Eugene Thomas, who spent eight years incarcerated before he had his day in court. We ask for resources to we can get children who are being assaulted out of jail and back into school and on the right track for making changes in their lives. We ask for resources so the mentally ill are not punished for their disabilities, but sent to receive the services they need. This is the daily work of a public defender in New Orleans and we do not have to look for opportunities to continue this good work; they are presented daily by an overburdened system.
When my family was being evicted and our belongings were destroyed – cut into pieces – as they were thrown onto the street, I wanted someone to fight for us the way my staff fights for poor people today. I want every person in New Orleans, regardless of income, to know there is an office taking its responsibility to serve them seriously.
The enormous size of the justice system in New Orleans has created a funding crisis for my office. Even so, I promise the people of New Orleans we will not shirk our responsibility because unscrupulous individuals want us to break the law. We operate openly according to the law and we will not be intimidated into sacrificing our mission so people can try to make more money off of poor people. The Orleans Public Defenders will continue to meet that mission and protect justice and fairness in New Orleans to the best of our ability.
Derwyn Bunton is the Chief District Defender for Orleans Parish. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.