Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Criminal Justice in New Orleans

One of the primary tasks of volunteers at the Public Defender's Office (www.orleanspublicdefenders.org) is to attend first appearance hearings. The OPD developed the Critical Stage Project in order to provide representation to defendants after they are arrested and before the charges are accepted. This stage is both important and the longest in the country. The prosecutors in Louisiana have 45 days for a misdemeanor and 60 days for a felony to decide if they want to accept the charge; accepting the charge means that they are moving forward with the prosecution of the case. This period is significantly longer in Louisiana than in any other state in the country – the nearest longest is about 14 days. Simply on procedural grounds alone, We were shocked by this period of time. To have people not charged, yet in jail for up to 45 or 60 days is a really, really long time. Before developing this project, the first time that the public defenders provided representation for clients was at the arraignment. Allowing such a period of time to pass before doing any investigation left much of the evidence that could be used by the defense stale and made it hard to defend clients. Clients had a hard time appealing their bond, or even contacting people to make bond for them. Additionally, the local probable cause standard, which the State must establish before an individual can be lawfully arrested or detained, is ridiculously easier to satisfy than Criminal Procedure Class lead us to believe. Consequently, someone can remain in jail for 60 days based solely on unsubstantiated allegations, and then released at the end of that period when the State finally realizes there is no evidence to press charges. We are told this happens all the time.

Now, the OPD meets with potential (because they've yet to decide if they are indigent and thus qualify for a public defender) within 48 hours of their arrest at these first hearings. The hearings take place in the basement of the jail. There are a few rows of metal folding chairs that face a television screen. In an eerily big-brother-esque fashion, and at no set time, the screen beeps on and the judge appears peering down at the recently arrested prisoners. Each prisoner is given about fifteen seconds attention. Sometimes the judge may actually spend a few seconds on whether probable cause has been established; usually the judge skips directly to setting a bond amount. This leaves the defendants confused when they are quickly shuffled back to jail to wait for someone to make bond for them, or for a hearing within the next two months.

Pre-Katrina, the defendants used to see the judge face to face and be present in the courtroom for these proceedings. When the levees broke, the tunnel that led to the courtroom from the jail was flooded, and the jail itself received an ample amount of damage. Initially, the judge would come over to the basement of the jail to conduct the hearings. That didn’t last too long, and the video system was established as a “temporary” fix. However, the tunnel has still not been repaired and the court just spent $15,000 on an upgraded video system. The rust cold basement where the prisoners now sit through the hearing is a stark contrast between the comfortable mahogany courtroom.

The Critical Stage Project also provides legal representation after these hearings, including filing motions for a bond review, preliminary hearings, and interviewing clients within the first week. It is a highly ambitious project for the under-resourced public defenders office, but it is hard to imagine these clients NOT having this type of representation. The program is vital if we are at all interested in having any degree integrity in the adversarial criminal justice system.

I was in New Orleans last year with Hastings Hurricane Relief and participated in the FEMA trailer survey project. My intentions for spending my Spring Break with HHR last year were driven by a sense of solidarity with the victims of a natural disaster (sort of the “it could have been me” idea.) The FEMA survey project was an ideal match for this purpose because we were able to hear people’s stories and identify areas of need. That trip revealed an even greater tragedy than the gut-wrenching stories of a natural disaster. It under-covered a system of institutionalized racism that created a scenario where socioeconomic status determined the severity of the effects of Katrina. This system isn’t new. Katrina helped shine some light on the problems in New Orleans, and called into question issues of race and poverty that we really should have been asking all along. My intentions for coming to New Orleans again this year were to ask some of these questions and get a better understanding of this deeply rooted system of injustice. It is no longer about victims of a natural disaster, but about a poverty pocket that affects real people who “could be me.” Working with the public defenders office, seeing everyday the overwhelming amount of black people relative to white who are arrested and jailed, and realizing that they have not even a whisper to stand up to a system so completely against them has been a horrifyingly eye-opening experience.

In a way, it is good that Katrina happened. The devastation she caused was terrible, but it has brought forward to discussion a reality that we should no longer have tolerance for. I leave you with this Malcolm X quote, and beseech you to ponder the imperative nature of the situation here in New Orleans.

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t believe it will be based on the color of the skin.”

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