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Troubled New Orleans criminal justice system struggles to rebound

04:30 PM CDT on Saturday, June 24, 2006

By SHARON COHEN AP National Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Their faces glisten with sweat, their red-rimmed eyes stare ahead vacantly as they're herded into the sweltering room where another day of court is about to begin.

"Sorry you have to sit on the floor," Commissioner Marie Bookman says to about 50 men and women in leg shackles before she calls her first case in the bond hearing.

It's a spring morning in the New Orleans court system's long road back from Hurricane Katrina.

This session of magistrate court is temporarily being held in a police lineup room furnished with plastic tables. Flies buzz about. Two giant fans offer no relief.

Most of the men here have been arrested on drug charges; most of the women have been accused of prostitution. Few can afford lawyers.

Everybody else is represented by the same public defender, who hasn't had time to interview anyone beforehand. It's the black-robed commissioner who flips through manila folders and questions the prosecutor.

She asks about residue in a crack pipe in one case, the number of guns in another.

Occasionally, she addresses the defendants. She has questions for one ruddy-faced man: "You're homeless? No trailer? No friends? No relatives?"

She moves through the cases quickly.

No one can make bail, so it's back to jail for what can be a long wait - up to two months - before they see a lawyer again.

As one man shambles up the stairs, Tulane University law professor Pam Metzger leans over to a visitor and whispers: "How do you like our brand of justice?"


The criminal justice system - like so much else in New Orleans - was ravaged by the hurricane. The courthouse was flooded. Files were ruined, evidence contaminated. Judges and lawyers lost their offices and homes. Witnesses and victims fled for their lives.

Ten months later, this vision of legal hell is slowly being cleared away. Judges are back in court and trials have begun.

But it's going to take much longer to fix a system whose long-neglected flaws were ruthlessly exposed by Katrina - defendants being run through hearings at near tobacco-auction speed, 60-day jail stays without seeing a lawyer, low pay for overworked public defenders and a jambalaya of outmoded statutes that some scholars say should have been overhauled a century ago.

After floodwaters receded, everybody recognized the problems, says David Carroll, director of research and evaluation at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

"Katrina ... removed the pretension that the system was working," he says. "They're now able to start with a clean slate."

To rebuild, this tradition-minded community must come up with not only money but fresh ideas and the political will to make them a reality.

Some changes already have occurred. A new board has been selected to oversee the New Orleans indigent defender program, which represents about 85 percent of people arrested.

The program has been cash-starved for years because it's funded primarily by fees tacked on to traffic fines. After Katrina, tickets became nonexistent because everyone had evacuated the flooded city. With little money, three-quarters of the defenders were laid off, leaving thousands of prisoners in legal limbo.

Two judges recently ruled this kind of funding system is unconstitutional. The legal battle is now heading to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which has declared in other cases that reforms are needed.

A new report sponsored by the Justice Department also recommended more stable funding and offered this grim assessment: For the poor in New Orleans, "justice is simply unavailable."

How much will change depends, in part, on how much money is available.

The state bar association has kicked in about $1 million. The Justice Department has awarded the New Orleans indigent defender program $2.8 million - though the study it sponsored said more than $10 million is needed for the year. And Gov. Kathleen Blanco's call to double to $20 million the amount going to indigent defense for Louisiana was approved last week by the legislature.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan agrees that the defenders' office needs more money and a more reliable source of funds.

Some plans already are being put in place to help inmates and end the lack of attorneys for indigent suspects in the early stages of their cases.

Poor people have defenders at their bond hearings, but unless they can hire a lawyer afterward, they don't have representation until they're officially charged. Prosecutors can take up to 60 days to make that decision for felonies - during which time suspects are be locked up if they can't make bail.

Two dozen lawyers have volunteered to participate in a "quick fix" plan, representing the poor from the time of the arrest until charges are filed. "It gives them an advocate and ... it ensures some accountability," Metzger says.

Calvin Johnson, former chief judge of the Orleans Parish criminal courts, says of the changes: "I think we're finally seizing the moment."

After Katrina, thousands of inmates were evacuated to jails and prisons around Louisiana, some as much as six hours away.

Private lawyers mobilized to represent inmates on an emergency basis, but it was hard to figure out at first how many people were being held, what they were charged with, or even where they were locked up.

Hundreds of prisoners were eventually sprung after lawsuits were filed. They included inmates awaiting trial on petty offenses who'd already served more time than they would have if convicted and those held past their release dates without anyone noticing.

"People were hundreds of miles from a courthouse, with no court date and no lawyers. If these conditions existed in Mexico, our State Department would have been issuing a blistering human rights report," says Neal Walker, director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center.

For example, one man who got in a fistfight three days before Katrina was jailed 41/2 months before prosecutors decided not to file charges, Walker says.

Jordan, the district attorney, acknowledges some inmates fell through the cracks early on, but he says each case needs to be judged on its own merits. "There are a number of individuals who should be in jail," Jordan says, "and we're going to fight to keep them in jail."

The debate over inmates is just one part of the lingering turmoil in the system.

Prosecutors, whose building was severely damaged by floodwaters, recently moved out of its unlikely temporary home - a dimly lighted nightclub - to more suitable accommodations.

Judges face a backlog of an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 cases, compared with about 3,800 before Katrina. They had been using two federal courtrooms as their 1930s Art Deco courthouse was repaired. Even now, only 7 of 13 courtrooms have reopened.

The actual prosecution of cases poses its own obstacles, says Rick Teissier, a defense lawyer appointed to evaluate the indigent defender program.

"How do you find the victims? What do you do about the cops who were fired? Do these cases wash away with them running away?" he says, referring to the testimony of police dismissed after failing to report for duty in the tumultuous days after the storm.

In a flood-ravaged evidence room, "I was stepping over guns and hoping none of them were loaded," says Katherine Mattes, a Tulane law school professor, who says some evidence has been lost, some contaminated. "How much? I don't if anyone can rightfully say."

Johnson believes most evidence will be salvaged but has another worry: Luring back experienced workers who've settled outside Louisiana. "They have lives, they have jobs, their kids are in schools. The salaries we offer are not the same," he says.

Prosecutor Jordan understands: He says 23 of 90 lawyers did not return after the storm, and it's hard to recruit replacements with $30,000-a-year starting salaries. That pay will increase by $10,000 over the next two years; state lawmakers last week approved raises for assistant district attorneys throughout the state.

Though those jobs are critical, much depends on what happens to the indigent defender program.

Some say it's time to scrap the practice of using part-time lawyers assigned to courts, rather than to cases. "Public defenders see their job as keeping the assembly line moving as opposed to defending the client," says Carroll, the legal aid expert.

The recent Justice Department report said the indigent defense program in New Orleans needs 70 full-time lawyers - compared with 42 part-time defenders before Katrina - as well as investigators and other staff.

Dwight Doskey, a veteran public defender, says his colleagues are committed to their jobs despite juggling scores of cases, making little money and working in cramped conditions. He says he wants to be optimistic, but he's dubious about long-term change.

Teissier is betting this will be a turnaround.

"I think the justice system is way ahead of the game in trying to make a comeback," he says. "And if a few people can change it, that's just the beginning ... Why can't the whole city change? ... I think this is a defining moment."