Orleans Public Defenders deserve our support as they fight for funding

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Orleans Public Defenders deserve our support as they fight for funding

A file photo of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court where OPD attorneys defend clients.

A file photo of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court where OPD attorneys defend clients.

Josh Axelrod | Senior Staff Photographer

A file photo of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court where OPD attorneys defend clients.

Josh Axelrod | Senior Staff Photographer

Josh Axelrod | Senior Staff Photographer

A file photo of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court where OPD attorneys defend clients.

Josh Axelrod and Nketiah Berko

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Josh Axelrod and Nketiah Berko both served as investigative interns for the Orleans Public Defenders office in the spring of 2019.

The Orleans Public Defenders office represents about 85% of defendants in New Orleans’ criminal justice system. Its services are vital. Underfunding the organization could serve a fatal blow to a city where one in seven adults have a warrant out for their arrest.

The agency is asking for $5.5 million in 2020 compared to its current amount of $1.8 million. For reference, the District Attorney’s office received $80.4 million last year.

Last Saturday, OPD hosted its annual Second Line for Equal Justice at the Criminal District Courthouse and on Tuesday New Orleans Saints player Demario Davis hosted a forum boosting OPD’s fundraising call.

Their plea deserves the wholehearted attention of the Tulane community. OPD is one of our public service partners, and we should acknowledge its import while cherishing our positive relationship.

Amid a slew of public service organizations that have submitted complaints to Tulane, asking for the university to stop sending undergraduate volunteers or notice our often-problematic relationship to the city and its non-profits, OPD is a rare instance. The office requires manpower to help its inundated staff with grunt work that would otherwise fall on the shoulders of overloaded employees.

If another opportunity crops up to show support for OPD, Tulane students should be a presence. When the time to choose a public service internship or volunteering engagement comes, OPD should be at the top of the list for students looking to engage with New Orleans’ broken criminal justice system.

Beyond OPD, there are a number of other organizations dedicated to ensuring all New Orleanians’ equal rights under the law. The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, for instance, represents many of the city’s system-involved youth. Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana defends state residents against rights infringements. 

In short, Tulane students have a variety of means to make a substantive difference. Though many of us may be isolated from the cruel realities of indigent defense, getting involved with organizations such as OPD is a prime opportunity to immerse ourselves within the city’s social environment.

Every day, hundreds of Tulane students eat in a newly-constructed dining hall that costs ten times what OPD is currently requesting to adequately defend the basic, constitutional rights of the city’s least privileged. With campus-specific medical services and police patrols, the Tulane uptown campus is in many ways its own municipality.

As Tulane students, however, we must actively resist an indifference to issues such as OPD’s lackluster support from the city administration. Such a lack of concern only pits our privilege as students of one of the city’s wealthiest institutions against those who cannot, by virtue of their socioeconomic status, simply be apathetic.

Like Davis, we as Tulane students are uniquely positioned to both call attention to OPD’s organizational needs as well as help where we can. Whether through volunteering our time or money, or even raising awareness, we owe it to our city to do so.