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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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  • Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#1)
    by MarchDancer on Sun Apr 16, 2006 at 11:46:52 PM EST
    Good Grief! These are ALL misdemeanors, right? That's the gist I got from this article. Since most misdemeanors don't go beyond six months, shouldn't they all be have been turned loose by now just naturally, legally? So what if these people have never seen an attorney? All the more reason to unlock those cells. Although, as my husband points out, since it appears that many were homeless they might be better off - physically.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 04:08:07 AM EST
    I can think of a few folks who should be doin' Katrina Time. Hard Katrina Time.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 05:19:06 AM EST
    For poor black folks it "Working out well" Three square meals 'n nice dry cell. Gas prices rising at the pump. No such worries in dis here dump. Was only speeding now I's in hell. Marchdancer. dedicated to your husband.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 06:39:21 AM EST
    This is insanity at its worst. People should not be sitting in jail 7 months waiting to speak to a court-appointed lawyer about charges that carry a six month maximum sentence. Perhaps Blanco and Naglin can take a few minutes out of their next press conference called to blame the federal government for Katrina to deal with this problem? Or is that asking too much?

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#5)
    by BigTex on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 08:26:47 AM EST
    Why isn't the ACLU jumping all over this? If the state/parish machenery is unable to take care of the situation then private attorneys or organizations of attorneys need to step up and fill the void. The ACLU has a presence in LA, they should be stepping up to fill the void.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#6)
    by kdog on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 09:32:37 AM EST
    Outrageous. Sounds like a prison break is totally justified in this instance.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#7)
    by Dadler on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 11:43:22 AM EST
    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 11:49:59 AM EST
    Posted by justpaul April 17, 2006 07:39 AM
    This is insanity at its worst. People should not be sitting in jail 7 months waiting to speak to a court-appointed lawyer about charges that carry a six month maximum sentence. Perhaps Blanco and Naglin can take a few minutes out of their next press conference called to blame the federal government for Katrina to deal with this problem? Or is that asking too much?
    Gee, don't you have a firm grasp of the obvious. Perhaps you could STFU and learn what the hell you're talking about just once in your life or is that asking too much, jp?

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#9)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 01:29:37 PM EST
    Since the inmates seem that they'll be incarcerated for an indeterminate amount of time, why not use them as cheap labor to help clean up the mess from Katrina for the residents of New Orleans who haven't committed crimes? It's not like the criminals have anything better to do while their incarcerated. Their needs for shelter, food, medical assistance are being met at the taxpayers burden. Have them lend a hand - heck, credit them for community service if you want. But why should they get free food and shelter without having to reciprocite back to their community. I'm sure some of them would even volunteer to help the clean-up efforts if for no other reason than a change of scenary. After all, if they're going to be stuck in jail for several more months because of too few lawyers, judges, and court rooms, let's get some good use out of them.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#10)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 01:41:38 PM EST
    Since the inmates seem that they'll be incarcerated for an indeterminate amount of time, why not use them as cheap labor to help clean up the mess from Katrina for the residents of New Orleans who haven't committed crimes?
    Since these inmates have not been convicted of a crime, they are innocent until proven guilty.
    But why should they get free food and shelter without having to reciprocite back to their community.
    You have completely missed the point. Here is a link to the sixth amendment.
    After all, if they're going to be stuck in jail for several more months because of too few lawyers, judges, and court rooms, let's get some good use out of them.
    Despicable post.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#11)
    by Dadler on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 02:32:37 PM EST
    macro, innocent people stuck in jail, denied their constitutional rights are draught animals to an opiner such as CHILDOFALUMINUM-- er, manofsteel(wool?). amazing but true. "them" really means "those oxen". no yoke. er, joke. disgraceful is being much too kind.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#12)
    by Dadler on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 02:35:18 PM EST
    er, despicable.

    Re: Inmates Doing Katrina Time (none / 0) (#13)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Wed Apr 19, 2006 at 09:07:02 PM EST
    It's very easy when you're not here to call for press conferences or the ACLU or bands of roving lawyers with a lot of time and money on their hands. But when you live in New Orleans, as I do, the reality is there ain't much here. what is getting done is getting done by private citizens and college kids on spring break who give up their time to come take apart houses and throw away everything we once owned and cherished. And we are glad to see them. But helping inmates of OPP is not high on the list of the citizens and grouips that once had the resources and desire to work on behalf of the disenfranchised. Here it is strictly survival. Where do you think the ACLU is? Huh? The local people who were employees or memebers washed away like the lawyers, clerks and judges did. The family and community networks that supported judicial reform and worked on behalf of indigent defendants are gone. There are people sent to Angola state pen, one of the most hard core facilities in the country, after Katrina, who were incarcerated for misdemeanors like public drunkenness! I don't know the answers. I just know that glib comments show me that most of you don't know what you are talking about.