Solving Problems & Improving Leadership at an Underfunded Office

While being a summer intern at the public defenders office does not make me qualified to assess the quality or style of the leadership at my organization, I have gathered some insights from my ten weeks that I can offer. One of the biggest operational issues and impediments to effectiveness at Orleans Public Defenders (and I think any staff member would agree with this) is budget. It is unfortunate that an office doing such important work in the community is forced to wonder what more they could have done with full funding, and that the implementation of one’s constitutional right to counsel may be obstructed by arbitrary financial limitations. The office is essentially funded by an unpredictable and problematic “user pay system.” What this means is that traffic tickets and court fines constitute most of the public defenders’ budget. However, the people paying these fines are often the ones most reliant on our services. Even with a “no cost” right to counsel guaranteed for poor people, the most impoverished in New Orleans continue to foot the bill for their own criminal defense. This leads to inadequate funding for our office, especially when compared to the District Attorney’s office or the Police Department. This means the average public defender in New Orleans has a caseload of more than 100 felonies at any given point in time. It is impossible to imagine that one person, often working without an investigator or support staff, can adequately represent 100 clients at a time in a system with harsh sentencing laws and systematic prejudices to black and poor people. 

The problem of underfunding has necessitated a certain style of leadership from OPD staff. The highest ranking attorneys and staff in the office must constantly project visionary and inspirational leadership and messages to keep morale high and the focus on our clients. Everyone at OPD works under the assumption that the vast majority of the time their hard work will result in a less than just outcome. Attorneys prepare for weeks for a trial that ends in a plea bargain the first day in court. Social workers contact dozens of hospitals and rehab centers in search of bed for a client struggling with addiction only to be turned away each time. Investigators receive cases months or years after an incident occurred and visit location after location looking for witnesses (who may have moved, forgotten, or are unwilling to speak with us) and surveillance footage (often deleted or improperly stored) to try and exonerate a client. Because the work can be frustrating and fruitless at times, employees need to be reminded of the grander vision and the symbolic importance of their work. This creates an opportunity for incredible leadership that is and should be capitalized on. This also lends itself to a team-oriented dynamic around the office whereby everyone works in concert to achieve the same goal. If a case goes to trial, we have roles for jury selection that are named after football positions. Achieving rigorous defense and liberty for our clients will not happen by the efforts of one individual, and everyone at OPD recognizes this. After one attorney was able to get an excellent plea deal that would keep our client out of jail, an office wide, congratulatory email chain was spawned that included hundreds of staff members and went on for days. The same thing happened the next week when one of our clients successfully completed a rehabilitation program. Overall, the nature of the leadership and of the environment is constructed as a result of the office’s financial shortcomings. However, this creates an opportunity for visionary leadership and a team oriented work environment.