Inmates Doing Katrina Time
Update: See the report released last month by the Southern Center for Human Rights.
The Washington Post Saturday reported on an aspect of Hurricane Katrina that needs far greater attention. After Hurricane Katrina, the already dismally underfunded public defender's system suffered more cuts --to the extent that thousands are imprisoned in Parish jails who should not be there - either because the time they've served exceeds the maximum time allowed for the crime, or they have never seen a lawyer and speedy trial rules flew out with the storm.
Here's the current state of the court system:
The criminal justice system here is besieged on all sides. The evidence room was flooded with several feet of water. Witnesses, like half the population, are scattered all over the country. The district court's 13 judges are restricted to holding court in two federal courtrooms available only four days a week. No criminal jury trials have been held since the storm.
As to the prisoners:
For the most part, Chief District Judge Calvin Johnson said, they are indigent defendants who were arrested on misdemeanor charges just before or after Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29. They often lack attorneys and their cases get "lost" in the system, he said, leaving the accused to serve weeks or months of extra incarceration. The flooding after Katrina robbed thousands of people of their homes, drinking water and other essentials. But it has also deprived many others of another fundamental: the right to legal representation.
About 80 percent of defendants in New Orleans are supposed to be represented by the public defender's office. Supported largely by traffic court fines and fees -- which evaporated after Katrina -- the office shrank from 42 lawyers to 10 afterward.
Judges in Lousiana. are realizing they can't do their job with unrepresented defendnats and a shortage of public defenders. What are their choices going to be? Stall for a while, but if it doesn't get better, let the imprisoned out of jail.
Without action from the state legislature, he indicated, he may soon have to consider releasing those defendants. (Last week, lawyers began seeking the release of more than 15 of them.) "It's beyond the question of whether these defendants have effective counsel -- it's a question of whether they have attorneys at all," Hunter said.
Students at the Tulane Law Clinic has been trying to help:
They have interviewed about 60, she said, and of those only one or two had seen a lawyer or a judge since the storm.....Meanwhile, no one knows exactly how many defendants are serving or have served "Katrina time."
A December, 2005 National Law Journal article reported that the District Attorneys' offices are also suffering financially.
To cope with that problem, local officials are asking Congress to create a $100 million grant program through the Justice Department that would provide operating funds to Louisiana courts, district attorney's offices, and public defenders to get them through the beginning of 2006. "We will need the money pretty soon after the first of the year," Adams said. "The hole is going to hit in February. We don't know what we're going to do. We're hoping that Congress will act."
But he said officials worry that Washington has moved on and is no longer paying much attention to Katrina-related matters. "We're afraid that Congress is becoming Katrina-deaf," Adams said.
February has come and gone. It's time for Congress to open its ears and its wallet. This doesn't just affect prisoners. It affects the rebuilding of New Orleans. As one defense lawyer puts it:
Without balance in the criminal justice system, there is no public safety. Without an assurance of public safety, we cannot convince our citizens to return, nor can we convince industry to consider locating within our borders. We cannot simply restore the same dysfunctional criminal justice system that was in place before the storms. If we do, then we will miss our best chance to show the rest of the nation that we not only have the ability to recover from these tragedies, but the resolve to make our state a better place to live.
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