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For years the public defender system in Louisiana was one of the worst in the country. And then came Hurricane Katrina. Horror stories had been commonplace. Some people were kept in prison for more than a year without seeing a lawyer.

Today the system has gone through a dramatic overhaul. Experts on what's called indigent defense say Louisiana has created a national standard for other states to follow.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Nobody in Louisiana would have wished for Hurricane Katrina, certainly not Tulane law professor Pamela Metzger. But now, sitting in a New Orleans coffee shop two years after the storm, Metzger says there is at least one way in which the devastating storm was a very good thing.

Professor PAMELA METZGER (Tulane University Law School): What Katrina did in terms of indigent defense was bring out the absolute best in everyone, in every piece of the criminal justice system.

SHAPIRO: It only brought out the best in the criminal justice system because it exposed the very worst of it.

Prof. METZGER: People were going to jail, having been told they had the right to an attorney, and waiting three months to ever see that attorney, sometimes longer.

SHAPIRO: New Orleans funded its public defenders office with revenue from traffic tickets. When the city flooded, police stopped writing traffic tickets, so the public defenders office had to lay off almost all of its lawyers. Nobody knew where prisoners were, and no one claimed responsibility for them.

Metzger says if Katrina hit today, things would be totally different.

Prof. METZGER: Let's start with the basics. The public defenders in Orleans Parish know who their clients are. What that means is were there to be an evacuation, there would be individual lawyers who had actual files on every client that the public defender represents. There would be no lost prisoners.

SHAPIRO: These changes are the result of one of the most comprehensive indigent defense overhauls in the country. Louisiana's public defenders are independent now. They used to answer to judges. Defense lawyers no longer get assigned to courtrooms. Instead, they get assigned to clients. And the same lawyer will represent the same defendant from the beginning to the end of the trial process.

Traffic tickets still make up part of the funding, but now there's also a separate state fund that's more reliable.

David Carroll of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association has been working with Louisiana for the last four years.

Mr. DAVID CARROLL (National Legal Aid and Defender Association): Here they are. They recognize they had a problem. They addressed it. They fixed it. And that's something that I just think is great.

SHAPIRO: Some years ago, the American Bar Association put out a list of 10 principles for a successful indigent defense system. Carroll says Louisiana hit 10 out of 10, even though it's among the poorest states in the country. The only other state that's made a similar overhaul in the last few years is Montana. Carroll says Montana and Louisiana have something notable in common.

Mr. CARROLL: Interestingly enough, in both states the final reform push in the legislature was handled by the Republicans.

SHAPIRO: Interesting because Republicans generally have a reputation for opposing indigent defense reform. Carroll says the key to getting everybody on board is showing that a broken public defender's office makes the whole system less effective and wastes taxpayer dollars.

The Republican who handled Louisiana's bill in the House of Representatives is Danny Martini.

State Representative DANNY MARTINI (Republican, Louisiana): I'm not in any way considered to be bleeding heart; in the same way I'm not one of these lock everybody up and put them away.

SHAPIRO: Martini says he pulled everybody into a room - the prosecutors, the judges, the defenders - and he insisted on hammering out a consensus solution.

State Rep. MARTINI: The problem is the general public does not perceive the provision of indigent defense services as a right. They think it's a perk that the criminals get.

SHAPIRO: But by creating a bill that everyone agreed to, he was able to get an overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of reform. The tally in the House was 100 to one.

Marta Schnabel was recently head of the Louisiana Bar Association.

Ms. MARTA SCHNABEL (Louisiana Bar Association): Many of the people who were in support of the bill had a lot of courage to present an issue that generally won't get you re-elected, which is we'd like you to spend a fair amount of money - millions of dollars - on providing lawyers for poor people who have allegedly committed crimes.

SHAPIRO: Now Louisiana is in the novel position of being ahead of most other states on indigent defense. And other states doing their own reforms treat Louisiana's example as famous, rather than notorious.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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