"Together, we will continue to demonstrate what is possible when people are given the opportunity to access aid and care instead of a jail cell."
As public defenders, it is our duty to fight for our clients, uphold the constitution and hold power accountable. Additionally, we advocate for the people in our community who face the most profound challenges and urgently need the most care.
The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) represents 85-90% of everyone arrested in Orleans Parish, the vast majority of whom are Black and Brown and all of whom are extremely low income. All experience harm and trauma as a result of their arrest, accompanied by incarceration, separation from family, and removal from any mental health care or substance use program, as well as disconnection from medical services, food aid, and ties to housing, often with both current and future hopes of employment or continuing education stripped away.
To zealously represent people, specifically those who are most vulnerable and at the highest risk of both engaging in harm and being harmed, one must divest from the notion that public defenders take “cases.” We represent people. We invest in, fight for, and work to support and restore individuals and their families. We protect innocence and ensure the rights of our clients and community are upheld. But even the best attorney cannot take on this task alone. This is why OPD has engaged the Partners for Justice program to bolster our Client Services Division (CSD) by recruiting, training, and supporting a team of Client Advocates.
Our Client Advocates work from arraignment through disposition (and beyond) to not only ensure our clients get the best possible outcome inside the courtroom, but also address the drivers of system involvement in order to create meaningful opportunities to move forward to something better. This is what the Partners for Justice team has done. These extraordinary new professionals worked with more than 600 clients in 2021 alone, taking on multiple tasks for each client. The majority of their efforts were focused on improving legal outcomes (reducing days in jail) and restoring life outcomes (connections to healthcare, including mental health and substance use, as well as benefits and employment) even through the difficulties of the ongoing pandemic and destruction of Hurricane Ida. This team has achieved nearly 80% of the goals they set in partnership with their clients, and we estimate their efforts eliminated nearly 9,000 days in jail. Importantly, our Advocates are able to meet clients very early in their case, providing rapid screening and connection to services at their first court appearance.
The end result is we have been able to further meet our community members where they are and advocate for their individual wishes and best interests. CSD and the PFJ team continue to lower the barriers to our clients getting the help they need, and offer a critical support person within their legal representation team to make the process of engaging with multiple treatment providers, emergency food and shelter resources, and social service providers as seamless as possible. We understand and recognize the value in advocating for the entire person, not just their legal case and we have seen the impact of holistic, client-centered representation. Our expectation is that together, we will continue to demonstrate what is possible when people are given the opportunity to access aid and care instead of a jail cell.
"Where a white legal professional might see stats, I see people. Because, after all, the systemic issues that affect my clients have also affected me."
Not only did she stop her client from losing his housing, she convinced the property manager to continue keeping the Advocate in the loop on all correspondence about the property, given her client’s near blindness.