As a man who’s dedicated his 15-year career to helping those charged with crimes but can’t afford a private defense attorney, Danny Engelberg understands the work of a public defender all too well.

He likens the work to riding a fast-moving rollercoaster. Most mornings are a steady climb to the top as attorneys get acquainted with new clients and assess their cases. Then comes the high-speed drop of prioritizing cases, doing the limited investigating time allows, and fighting as best they can for those who lack the financial resources to navigate the complex legal system.

In reality, it’s more like a slow-motion disaster. And it needs to be fixed before more people end up being hurt.

At the Orleans Public Defenders office, where Engelberg serves as trial chief, people find themselves represented by attorneys who are carrying burdensome caseloads in an office that lacks the funding necessary to provide an adequate defense for everyone it represents.

Engelberg’s office offers a glimpse into public defense offices nationwide and a system that has the odds stacked against it in its fight against better-resourced district attorney’s offices and police departments.

It’s a system, Engelberg said, that produces mass incarceration and disproportionately affects communities of color.


In 2018, the Orleans Public Defenders represented people in nearly 25,000 cases filed in New Orleans, Louisiana. Those cases ranged from murders that carried life-without-parole sentences to misdemeanor drug offenses that, though less severe, can add a lasting mark to a person’s criminal history.

That immense caseload means attorneys with the office can carry more than 200 cases at a time, an onerous task that can lead to prioritizing cases by their importance. Those necessary decisions can have grave consequences for people who can’t afford cash bail and sit in jail for months, even for low-level crimes. That pretrial detention often means a loss of jobs, housing, any social services they received, and can lead people to take a plea deal whether they’re guilty of the crime or not simply to get out of jail sooner.