Concerts for Indigent Defense to put spotlight on Louisiana's public defense crisis

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New Orleans' Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton. - CHERYL GERBER
  • CHERYL GERBER
  • New Orleans' Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton.
March 18 is the 54th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark ruling guaranteeing the right to counsel for defendants who can't afford an attorney. But public defense for the indigent in Louisiana — which relies on fines and fees to fund its public defenders — has been at the center of a "constitutional crisis" in which caseloads overwhelm under-funded and under-staffed offices, halting many cases altogether while the state struggles with a perpetual budget mess. A recent lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center takes aim at the state's public defense services.

"Without adequate representation, there is no justice," New Orleans Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton said in a statement. "Our entire system fails and poor people are the ones hurt the most.”

New Orleans, appropriately, will host the first event in a planned series of national concerts to raise awareness of the right to counsel and the crises faced by public defenders offices nationwide. The New Orleans installment of Concerts for Indigent Defense features the Original Pinettes Brass Band, Zena Moses and Rue Fiya, Junko Beat (also featuring Orleans Public Defender Will Snowden), Caren Green, Mystic Beez, Casme, Britney Chaunte, Dedrick West, K.Levy, Justin Parker and others. In conjunction with the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the concert begins 5 p.m. Saturday, March 18 at WonderLand Production Studios (3233 St. Bernard Ave.). The concert also will be streamed on its website.

"The Supreme Court says you have a fundamental constitutional right to have a lawyer, and yet state after state, if you're poor and accused of a crime, you often don't have access to a decent lawyer at all," says event founder Stephen Saloom. "If you do, it’s not in a timely fashion. When they represent you they are often overwhelmed by a caseload that nobody thinks is appropriate."

Saloom, former policy director for the Innocence Project, sees the concerts as a platform that musicians and the public defenders can share to spread the kinds of data and stories that don't otherwise reach communities impacted by them.

"Musicians are able to get the public’s attention on social issues in ways that a policy report or lobbyist or lawyer can’t," he says. "It's putting a symbol on your show that is meant to stand in support of an important concept ... A nationwide problem with nationwide potential."

The event also is presented by John Thompson, who founded Resurrection After Exoneration in 2007 following his exoneration after spending 18 years in prison in Louisiana, including 14 years on death row.

The concert series plans installments in Denver, Colorado and Bridgeport, Connecticut, but the idea is any group in any city can sign up and partner with their respective public defenders offices to put on an event. Starting it in Louisiana — a leader in both over-incarceration and lack of representation — will be the "call to action," Saloom says.

A 2017 study published by the American Bar Association found that the state has only 363 full-time public defenders but needs 1,769. Last year, OPD began refusing felony cases, putting indigent defendants in a sort of legal limbo without defenders who didn't have the resources to fairly represent their clients.

"Providing public defense for people who can't afford their own lawyer is a greater crisis situation in New Orleans than all of America," Saloom says.

While not directly a fundraising initiative, the concert will take donations, which will benefit OPD.


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