The need for legal representation in New Orleans

Year after year, the city of New Orleans has consistently been ranked as one of the cities with the highest crime rates in the country. In 2023, NOLA made news when it was granted the title of “murder capital of the country,” with homicide rates reaching a record high not seen since the 1990s. The fact that the city constantly faces such high crime rates means there is enormous pressure on the justice system and continuous demand for court-appointed lawyers to represent those accused of crimes. Under the Sixth Amendment, every criminal defendant in the United States is guaranteed the right to legal representation, even if they cannot afford to pay for it. However, Louisiana has consistently faced issues of underfunding for public defense and struggles to meet needs for legal representation. In a 2020 article, State Public Defender Remy Voisin Starns was quoted discussing the neverending issue of “unreliable, unstable and insufficient funding that threatens the constitutional right of poor people to receive legal help when accused of a crime.” The nature of the justice system and how public defender offices receive funding means that their finances are constantly “in flux,” leading to instability and difficulty providing quality legal assistance to those in need. 

Arrest taking place in New Orleans
Photo by: Openverse

Orleans Public Defenders is a public defense office which was established in the turbulent years following Hurricane Katrina and the simultaneous, complete breakdown of the city’s criminal justice system. This chaotic period brought to light how much the citizens of New Orleans were in need of accessible public defense, and since then Orleans Public Defenders has been handling an intense caseload year after year to provide legal representation to those in need. Out of the thousands of people in and out of the New Orleans criminal justice system every year, 85-90% are unable to afford an attorney and need to be appointed one. This means that Orleans Public Defenders ends up providing representation to over 20,000 individuals every year, filling the city’s unceasing need for affordable legal assistance.

A major part of Orleans Public Defenders’ work is client representation, which entails staff attorneys and investigators supporting each individual case. The organization also employs specialized staff such as special litigation attorneys and mental health attorneys, who are trained in representing clients with mental health difficulties. Within Orleans Public Defenders, there is also a juvenile division which provides assistance to minors going through the court system. The division also works with youth advocates and social workers to protect the rights of children being prosecuted. In a similar vein, there is a division dedicated to supporting and representing parents facing the removal of their children.

Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans Photo by: Ken Lund

Outside of representation, Orleans Public Defenders is dedicated to providing a holistic variety of client services in order to ensure their welfare throughout the entire justice process. The Client Services Division focuses on a wide array of issues such as medical care in jail and language access, and also connects clients to external services like housing and education. Additionally, there is a re-entry team to assist people with re-entering the community post-incarceration and minimize disruptions to their lives. 

Orleans Public Defenders is an impressive organization notable for their wide range of services and projects compared to other public defense options. While filling the demand for legal representation is one essential type of aid they provide, they also recognize the systemic issues which affect the entire criminal justice system outside of just the courtroom. Do you want to support an organization fulfilling the city’s crucial need for fair, equitable, and quality legal representation? You can take action by donating to Orleans Public Defenders at this link or to their client welfare fund here



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