November 22, 2005
Katrina Arrestees Stuck in Criminal Justice Limbo
From the Los Angeles Times: "Nearly three months after Katrina struck Louisiana, about 2,500 people arrested on minor charges before the hurricane struck are still in custody. A number of them have never been charged, many are being held beyond the time they were due to be released, and hundreds have never had a court hearing. Their plight is one of many troubling issues facing the Louisiana court system, where funding for public defenders, among other problems, has been further imperiled by the storm.
When the storm struck, about 8,500 people being held in the New Orleans jails were relocated to facilities throughout — and, in some instances, outside — the state. A small group of volunteer defense lawyers has filed writs and obtained the release of more than 1,800 of the evacuees...[Still] the attorneys [have] to litigate for many more weeks to secure the freedom of the hundreds still incarcerated on minor charges. [These thousands of cases are left to be litigated by a public defenders office of only nine lawyers. 75% of New Orleans' public defenders have been laid off, and the State's Governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, plans to cut $500,000 from the state's public defender system. New Orleans' Chief Criminal Court Judge Calivin Johnson says the combination of understaffing and underfunding creates 'at least a serious question, if not prima facie evidence, that indigent defendants in Orleans Parish are not [receiving], and cannot receive, the effective assistance of counsel to which they are constitutionally entitled.']
Over the last two weeks, in hearings in Baton Rouge, Judge Johnson...ordered more than a hundred people released. But the Orleans Parish district attorney's office appealed; a state appellate court and then the state Supreme Court stayed the release order. Asst. Dist. Atty. Donna Andrieu asserted, among other things, that there was "just cause" for holding the detainees longer because Orleans Parish prosecutors, dislocated from their office, had not had sufficient time to make decisions on whether to charge various people...
In a related development, the American Civil Liberties Union filed papers in a Louisiana federal court Thursday that provided disturbing accounts about 45 men and women who were incarcerated in the Orleans Parish Prison when Katrina struck. 'It was like we were left to die. No water, no air, no food. We were left with deputies that were out of control,' said one woman, identified in court papers as "Inmate #19." She said the women eventually were abandoned by guards, left with nothing to eat or drink, and that many of them drank water out of trashcans. Another prisoner, identified as "Inmate #41," said he saw 'a few dead bodies, and [we] were told not to say anything or we were going to be like them.'...
Since the hurricane, some legislators, judges, attorneys and others have been holding meetings on the problem, but there is no imminent solution. 'In terms of indigent defense, the Legislature is doing absolutely nothing,' said Baton Rouge attorney James Boren, former president of the Louisiana Criminal Defense Lawyers Assn. Moreover, Boren said he was outraged that as soon as the Legislature convened in special session, lawmakers approved a bill that would shield from liability the state Department of Corrections and any local sheriff's department that held people arrested before Katrina longer than was warranted." [Mark Godsey]
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