Allocating Scarce Resources on Life or Death

There isn’t enough money.  There are plenty of people who require a free lawyer, as they just keep arresting people without asking their net worth, but then they have to be given that free lawyer.  And that takes money. And there isn’t enough

In Orleans Parish, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton came up about $2 million short, out of budget of $9,500,000.  He just didn’t get the money he needed because somebody decided not to waste it on defendants spend it on a constitutional mandate.  So poof, it’s gone.

Some might think whoever decided not to hand over the money to be in the wrong.  Some might blame Bunton.  Via :

A new austerity plan at the Orleans Parish public defender’s office has started to make waves, including one that lapped into a courtroom Tuesday on the eve of a death penalty trial. The plan, to cut off all payments to private lawyers hired by the office, drew a biting response from Criminal District Judge Lynda Van Davis, who upbraided Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender.

Bunton had taken the witness stand to explain his move to halt payments for private lawyers who work death penalty cases and represent clients who have a conflict with the office.

After grilling Bunton, Davis accused him of misappropriating funds budgeted for capital cases.

“It sounds to me like you spent the money for [capital defense] on something else,” the judge said. “That’s the first (cut) you start with, is the people who face the toughest punishment in the state of Louisiana?”

Who, Judge?  Who deserves to get screwed?  Which defendant is unworthy of representation. Somebody has to get left behind, so which one do you choose?

The fact that the courts would be hard pressed to try a defendant, convict him and impose death if he’s not represented seems to suggest that Bunton’s choice was perfect.  If there’s no money for capital defense, there can’t be any capital punishment. 

And if you want to put people to death, because it would just break your heart not to execute somebody, then put up the money. 

Regardless of whether your choice would have been the same as Bunton’s, it doesn’t resolve the question of why Bunton should have been forced to decide where to allocate funds at all.  Why is it his problem of who gets paid, who gets a lawyer, who gets burned?  If the cops want to arrest, the District Attorney wants to prosecute and the judges want to sentence to death, they create the need for financing.  Hey, death cases are expensive.  You don’t want to pay the money? Don’t seek the death penalty. Problem solved.

But Judge Davis accused Bunton of misappropriating funds for capital cases.  Did he put the money in his pocket?  Did he rent out the bowling alley for a party?  No such allegation as far as I can see.  He used his funding to defendant people accused of crimes.  There is no rationale that justifies calling that misappropriation.  It’s allocation, and when somebody short changes you on a scarce resource such as funding, you’ve got no choice but to allocate.

Judge Davis’ concern is certainly understandable.  So too is the concern of lawyers who were working the death cases, thinking they would get paid whatever crumbs are given to those who do some of the most difficult work in the courthouse.  They should get paid, Well paid.

But to suggest that it’s Bunton who is stiffing the lawyers, holding up the death trials, is to focus on the low-hanging fruit.  What of the $2 million missing from his budget?  What of the people who are required to fund the defense of the people they want to put to death?  These are the fingers that clasp the purse strings so tightly that nothing can get done. 

Every defendant charged with a crime is entitled to indigent defense if he cannot afford a lawyer.  Sure, this drains the taxpayer.  Sure, taxes are down and people aren’t inclined to pony up any more. But this is a societal problem, not misappropriation by the public defender.  Scream and yell about it all you want, but put the real butts into the witness chair and find out where the money went. 

Leave Derwyn Bunton out of it. He’s trying to make use of what he’s got. If it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of the Constitution, go to the people who can fix the problem. Don’t blame Bunton.

H/T Aussie Tim Farhill

One thought on “Allocating Scarce Resources on Life or Death

  1. Andrew

    In this case, I don’t know how much of that $9.5 million is even coming from the general taxpayer. Apparently, each convict has to pay a fee (which the courts were not collecting until fairly recently) that goes to the public defender’s office, plus there is a fee attached to traffic tickets (not that the PD office is getting all *that* money either, apparently). So, let’s take more money from the people least able to pay and use that to fund the PD office.

    Also, doesn’t getting a fee from convicts create a conflict of interest? The PD office gets more money for losing than winning?

    I wonder what the prosecutors’ office budget is in comparison. $9.5 million for the public defender’s office doesn’t seem like anywhere near enough to run an office serving 80% of defendants in New Orleans.

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