Lack of Public Defenders Slows Courts in New Orleans

Judges in New Orleans are suspending the trials of indigent defendants who rely on public defenders as their legal counsel. The city fired dozens of public defenders in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the judges say the lawyers who remain cannot give the defendants sufficient representation.

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Amid all the other destruction, Hurricane Katrina wrecked Louisiana's program to provide defense lawyers for the poor. Some detainees have been locked up for six months without seeing a judge. And now some judges are contemplating releasing people from prison if the problem cannot be solved. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

A few months ago attorney Megan Garvey persuaded a court to release 14 people from prison. A judge had ordered them to be let go before Katrina hit. Garvey felt a surge of victory when the men were let out. She ran around town trying to find clothing, housing, and transportation for them. She returned to the office exultant and stopped in to visit a lawyer she works with.

Unidentified Woman: She was just like, Stop, and like showed me this huge stack of like papers with people's names on them of all these people that we had to deal with, and it's like that's when it finally, like we just had this moment like we realized, oh my God, there's thousands of people in this situation.

SHAPIRO: And far from providing them food and a place to live, Garvey didn't have the resources to give them the most basic representation. This isn't even her job. She is one of a handful of lawyers in New Orleans who have started volunteering their time since the city's public defenders office laid off all but six of its criminal defense attorneys. Those six people represent somewhere between four and five thousand clients. No one is even sure of the exact number, because the prisoners are spread out around the state.

And they are not just people with strong cases against them. Barry Gerharz(ph) is legal advisor for the non-profit group Safe Street Strong Communities.

Mr. BARRY GERHARZ (Legal Advisor, Safe street Strong Communities): The people who are in prison aren't in prison because there's evidence that says they should be in prison. They're not in prison because there are witnesses that say they committed the crime. They're in prison because they can't hire an attorney and their trials aren't moving forward.

SHAPIRO: The office that's supposed to represent these people is run by Tilden Greenbaum. He is New Orleans' chief public defender, and his staff handles roughly 90 percent of the city's criminal cases, or it did until the public defender's office said it could no longer handle all the cases it's been given. Greenbaum says one big problem is that indigent defense in Louisiana is largely funded through traffic tickets. And after Katrina, nobody in New Orleans was getting pulled over for speeding.

Mr. TILDEN GREENBAUM (Chief Public Defender, New Orleans): It is ridiculous, because from one month to the next, I don't know what our income is going to be. We have to prepare a budget at the beginning of the year, and it's a guess, because you have no idea how many tickets, how many court costs are going too paid.

SHAPIRO: A judge recently turned up the heat on the situation. He said if the public defender's office can't adequately represents it's clients, those prosecutions must stop. And since the Constitution guarantees everyone effective counsel, a judge may now let people who don't have lawyers out of prison. That's thousands of people, from drunks to murderers.

Walter Sanchez is a member of Louisiana's Indigent Defense Assistance Board.

Mr. WALTER SANCHEZ (Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board): It is uncomfortable. It's a point we should have never reached. But we've got to enforce the system for everyone. If we don't, then the rights and privileges that have are a function of who are and who we know.

SHAPIRO: People across the state want to make sure it doesn't come to that.

Unidentified Man: ...resolution of the Congress of the United States takes such action as necessary to provide...

SHAPIRO: On the last day of the Louisiana legislature's special session, the state Senate voted on a resolution asking Congress for permission to use federal money to fund the public defender's office. The bill's author, State Senator Lydia Jackson, says it's a tough sell, especially when the state has so many financial pressures from last year's hurricanes.

State Senator LYDIA JACKSON (New Orleans): Indigent defense is not a political priority for legislators. It's not anything that's going to help them get elected, and nobody wants to be soft on crime and give money to defend criminals.

SHAPIRO: But in what may be a sign of how serious this situation has become, Jackson's measure passed unanimously. That doesn't mean Congress will go along with it though. There are people who think the public defender's office should stop complaining and try to make do with what it has. Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau thinks what he calls the weeping and gnashing of teeth over this system is unproductive.

Mr. DOUG MOREAU (District Attorney, Baton Rouge): I would prefer to look at it the way I have to do with my home budget. You know, I'd would like to have steak and lobster every night this week. I don't have enough money for that. That doesn't mean I'm going to eat. What it means is I'm going to go buy what I can afford to buy and I will eat that until I save up enough money to buy the steak and the lobster.

SHAPIRO: Public defenders say they're not asking for steak and lobster. They just want enough money to eat.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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