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Standing Up for the People: SPLC welcomes new chief legal officer, former public defender in Louisiana

Derwyn Bunton can pinpoint the exact moment when he knew he wanted to be a lawyer.

His single mother of five had lost her longtime job and finally, unable to pay the family’s bills, they were evicted and their belongings tossed into the street. He was young, but he had already seen that lawyers could stand up for people like his mother. He wanted to “be that person who could make people listen.”

Since then, Bunton has made a lot of people listen.

In 2009, he became the chief legal defender in the chronically underfunded, overwhelmed Orleans Public Defenders office (OPD) in Louisiana and transformed it into one of the country’s best public defender offices serving defendants who cannot afford lawyers.

This week, Bunton, 50, joined the Southern Poverty Law Center as its new chief legal officer and will direct the SPLC’s civil rights litigation.

Bunton is roundly hailed as a fearless, effective leader who will tell truth to power in the name of equity and justice but also as a driven legal reformer who has spearheaded legislative and policy changes to Louisiana’s historically racist criminal legal system.

“We [OPD] made substantive law in juvenile justice, confinement – my branch of civil rights – prisons and the rights of the accused, but I also have an ability to apply these lessons,” said the California-born attorney, who began working in juvenile justice and confinement policy in New Orleans straight out of New York University School of Law.

“I hope to bring to the SPLC everything that I have learned, the 360 degrees of my experience in changing the justice landscape so that conditions are more equitable for vulnerable and targeted populations,” Bunton said.

Under Bunton’s leadership, the OPD grew from a small staff to 130 full-time, state and city-funded attorneys, investigators, client support staff and administrators who represent some 20,000 criminal defendants each year. The office has won major awards for outstanding achievement in providing legal defense for indigent people from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the National Association for Public Defense and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“I liked him right away,” said Margaret Huang, SPLC president and CEO. “I was excited about two particular strengths: his commitment to the South and his 25-year career as a litigator managing a sizable team of legal staff.” (The SPLC employs 136 attorneys, paralegals and other support staff.)

“He’s also a Louisianan,” Huang said. “He loves the state, loves being in the South. He knows the back stories around controversies, the judges we have to deal with. When you have a leader who really understands the court system, the political dynamics, and the perspective of a judge, that’s invaluable.”

Fighting for fairness

As chief legal officer, Bunton will be responsible for the strategic direction of the SPLC’s litigation to ensure that every case SPLC attorneys pursue advances the organization’s four key impact goals: fighting to protect our democracy, dismantling white supremacy, eradicating poverty and ending mass incarceration.

As a public defender in New Orleans, Bunton was well known in the state and national media for his dogged defense of indigent defendants’ rights, no matter how controversial.

He has fought to reform a system he has called “aimed at poor people and people of color,” citing racial disparities in arrests, wait times for people in jail before they are charged, and sentencing. His office has prioritized diversion programs for low-community-risk offenses, such as prostitution and marijuana possession, and he has been a frequent critic of a system in which many Black people are jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees or make bail.   

Yet it was Bunton’s announcement in December 2015 that his office would refuse to accept new, serious felony cases – because it could not provide a “constitutionally adequate defense for clients” – that drew the biggest media storm. The state had cut the OPD budget by $700,000 and the office faced a million-dollar shortfall.

Bunton later revealed that his action prompted judges to threaten his attorneys with contempt of court. He said that in another parish, “a judge advertised for volunteer attorneys to represent indigent defendants, saying ‘no experience necessary.’ ”

The city and state ponied up the resources needed to end the acute crisis but not the long-term one.

Last year, however, Bunton won a major victory when the New Orleans City Council passed a parity ordinance that he proposed. It requires that public defenders receive 85% of the annual funding given to prosecutors. (The OPD takes 85% of cases involving defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Fifteen percent use private attorneys, though they often exhaust their money and eventually turn to the OPD for representation.)

‘Meaningful and difficult’

Bunton never imagined he would stay in New Orleans for more than three years when he arrived in 1998. But he fell in love with his juvenile justice work, the storied, jazzy melting pot of a city and his future wife, Eileen, a middle school principal and Tennessee native. The couple has two daughters, Chloe, 14, and Reilly, 12. Bunton is known for his playful sense of humor, and photos of the family often show the four laughing and fooling around.

“I like to say that hilarity ensued,” Bunton said.

But his work – “meaningful and difficult and fulfilling to this day,” as Bunton describes it – has never been fun and games.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Louisiana ranks No. 1 among states. In 2021, nearly 1,100 out of every 100,000 Louisianans were locked up in state and federal prisons, local jails and other forms of confinement, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Between 1970 and 2015, Louisiana’s total jail population increased 665%.

The criminal legal system nationally is rife with racial disparities, and Louisiana lives up to its distinction in this area, too.

Black people constituted nearly 33% of state residents in 2019 yet comprised 52% of people in jail in 2015 and 67% of the prison population in 2017, according to the VERA Institute for Justice, a national organization dedicated to criminal justice and incarceration reforms on behalf of Black and Brown people, immigrants and people experiencing poverty.

Before the budgetary reforms, Louisiana’s public defenders were so overwhelmed and underfunded that they “did not visit crime scenes, interview witnesses, check out alibis, did not procure expert assistance, did not review evidence, did not know the facts of the case even on the eve of trial, did not do any legal research and did not otherwise prepare for trial,” according to a 2006 report issued by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

From Katrina’s ashes

Louisiana took a major hit when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. The Category 5 storm caused over 1,800 deaths – most of them in New Orleans – and upwards of $160 billion in damage. The city was decimated. The levees built to protect it from the Mississippi River failed, and 80% of the city was flooded for six weeks. The mass exodus of residents who evacuated before and after the storm reduced the city’s population by half as of the following summer. By 2012 many had returned, but the current population of 392,000 remains far below the 485,000 residents counted in the 2000 U.S. census.

After decades of persistent crises and failed state efforts at reform, Katrina hastened the complete breakdown of the state’s criminal defense system for people living in poverty.

Defendants who could not afford to hire a lawyer were evacuated to prisons statewide with no access to attorneys or understanding of why they were even detained. Their lengthy confinement without charge came to be known as “doing Katrina time.”

As federal funds poured into Louisiana, political leaders and criminal justice reformers believed the time was right to enact real change. The OPD was created in 2007. Bunton joined it two years later.

“Katrina was the turning point,” Bunton said. “The system had become increasingly punitive. The influx of federal funding to buoy the state led leadership to make significant reform – to treat juveniles as children [as opposed to trying them as adults].”

The Louisiana Training Institutions (LTIs) – prisons for young people – were segregated and harked back to Jim Crow, he said. Reform led to the closure of two of the five LTIs and reduced the number of incarcerated youths in them from 2,000 to 343.

“We made changes in education, taking it out of the hands of the local warden, and created a special school district run by the [Louisiana] Department of Education,” he said. “We got legislation to provide skills-building, had higher GED attainment, brought in Louisiana State University to provide medical care in the facilities and reduced violence inside the LTIs. That was the high-water mark.

“Then there were shifts in leadership over time, policy decisions reduced [financial] support, and the state abandoned the commitment,” Bunton said. “They reverted to ‘let’s just try to keep them [juveniles in LTIs] safe. Let’s just try to make sure no one gets hurt.’”

Refusal to be ‘complicit in a broken system’

Bunton’s announcement in late 2015 that his office would turn away new cases capped years of frustration with the state’s inadequate public defender funding, but a single case crystallized his decision that “we didn’t want to be complicit in a broken system.”

There had been a shooting in a playground.

“An adult in his late 20s, early 30s, was charged as the shooter,” Bunton said. “Bail was set at $2 million.

“He didn’t do it. His family cobbled together enough money to hire a lawyer to obtain footage from a security camera at the mall in Houston where he was with his girlfriend [at the time of the shooting]. That story broke. I was looking at our organization: ‘Could we get on his case in time and get on his information before it’s discarded or recorded over?’ I worried about whether we could do that. I couldn’t with confidence say that we could. We had too many cases.

“So, we stopped taking new cases and created a waiting list of almost a thousand cases. We got more resources. We ended up on 60 Minutes. Now if you do a search for me, it triggers an IMDb search,” Bunton quipped.

Strength in ‘small victories’

Flozell Daniels first met Bunton in 2010 when they began working together on youth justice reform. Daniels, a member of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and until July the CEO of Foundation for Louisiana, provided funding for Bunton’s policy work.

“One of the things I really appreciate about Derwyn as a civil rights lawyer – and I think it’s important that he be known as a civil rights lawyer – is that he has concerned himself with fighting for fundamental rights of people by recognizing their fullest humanity. People don’t generally believe that the system-involved people deserve to be treated with rights,” said Daniels, now CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.

And so, the work continued. And the victories.

In 2016, the OPD and partners persuaded the state to pass the Raise the Age Act, which increased the age for adult prosecution of nonviolent offenders from 17 to 18.

In 2018, after losing in the courts, the OPD and partners won an amendment to the state constitution, prohibiting nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, known as “Jim Crow” juries due to their historically disproportionate impact on Black and Brown defendants.

And in March 2020, as COVID-19 swept jails and prisons, the OPD won the immediate release and transfer of vulnerable and low-risk inmates from New Orleans detention facilities to safer conditions.

“We got a lot of folks out,” Bunton said.

As Bunton reflected on his 25-year career, he said the benefit of perspective helps him cope with the inevitable disappointments.

“I can point to where it [defending society’s underprivileged people] worked. I have glimpses of what it can be,” he said. “You draw some strength from that. In our work, a lot of it feels like a never-ending stream of losses, but you sit back and find strength in the small victories. … Also, listening to people who may never have been listened to, one sees oneself in everyone and that is very meaningful.”

Picture at top: Derwyn Bunton, formerly the chief legal defender in the Orleans Public Defenders Office in Louisiana, is the Southern Poverty Law Center's new chief legal officer.