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Citing Katrina Backlog, Judge Releases Inmates

October 07, 2006|From the Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A judge upset by the backlog of cases since Hurricane Katrina decided to release four New Orleans inmates from jail Friday and postpone their trials until they can get adequate representation from the spread-thin public defender's office.

District Judge Arthur Hunter warned that more releases could be coming, criticizing what he called the city's decades-long failure to protect the rights of poor defendants.

"It's only gotten worse since Hurricane Katrina," he said.

Hunter had been threatening to release defendants because, he said, their constitutional right to adequate legal counsel was being violated.

The inmates' release involved three cases of misdemeanor drug possession and what Hunter called a minor felony.

The cases had been assigned to the city's public defender's office, which has experienced budget and staff shortfalls since the August 2005 hurricane.

Before Katrina, the indigent defender program had 70 lawyers, six investigators and six office workers with a $2.2-million annual budget, 75% of which was financed by traffic court fines. Now there are 11 lawyers, two investigators and one office worker.

Most of the staff loss is attributed to employees who evacuated during Katrina and did not return. In addition, funding from traffic fines has dropped sharply since the storm, in part because much of the city's population has not returned.

Hunter had tried to subpoena legislators and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to explain why the public defender's office could not be better funded. All refused to appear, arguing the subpoena violated constitutional separation of power.

A call to Blanco's office was not immediately returned Friday.

Said state Sen. Lydia Jackson, a Democrat who leads the Legislature's Indigent Defense Services Task Force: "This should just be a real alarm to legislators and to our citizens about how critical it is to fast-track a solution for this problem."

She added that attracting lawyers back to the city was a bigger problem than funding.

Without an office for months and low on funding, a single lawyer in the program now faces about 130 cases in Hunter's court alone.

There are 12 divisions of criminal court.

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