An Orleans Parish judge has vowed to make good on his promise to begin releasing alleged criminals from New Orleans jails -- and he also announced that he would no longer appoint the local public defender program to represent such defendants, calling it a "mockery" of what such a program should be.
Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter said that next month he will release 42 poor defendants from custody, and he suggested the public defender program should drop cases because it lacks the staff or money to do its job properly, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports:
"The Louisiana Legislature has allowed this legal hell to exist, fester and finally boil over," Hunter said Friday, ruling from the bench that the poorest defendants in New Orleans are receiving the worst legal services as they face prison time. "This court must take certain measures to protect the statutory and constitutional rights of indigent defendants. Hurricane Katrina is no longer an excuse, and the state has a budget surplus."
Hunter's ruling won't be final until April 18, when the district attorney's office and public defender program are scheduled to present additional testimony on the matter. The chief of trials for the defender's program said he would need $2.1 million to properly staff his office -- about a third more than it currently has.
The public defender program now has 26 full-time attorneys and a growing caseload that stands at about 2,524 felony cases, according to the Times-Picayune.
The problems with the criminal justice system in Orleans Parish did not begin with Katrina, though the storm certainly did nothing to help matters. A report released last year by Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots group advocating for criminal justice reform, found that of 102 incarcerated people interviewed six months after the storm, not one had spoken to a public defender. As the group's director, Norris Henderson, said in a Times-Picayune op-ed:
Media reports made it seem as if this was unusual and likely due to the storm. Speaking as a person who spent many years in the state's custody, I can tell you that it is sadly par for the course.