Monday, November 13, 2006

In case it wasn’t obvious, I intend to use this space to ramble (and maybe rant) a bit about, among other things, the evolving state of affairs in the so-called criminal justice system in New Orleans. Let me set the stage. It is no secret that the justice system here has always been, shall we say, imperfect. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 served to expose some serious flaws, amplify the problems, and create new challenges for a chronically struggling system. Katrina decimated New Orleans and strained every sense of normal life for the City’s population. (The photos a footage you’ve seen may have earned their thousand words, but they are not currency enough for a disaster that defies description?) Those of means faced unimaginable obstacles whether they stayed or tried to go. Others were stranded until scattered like seeds blown by the shifting winds of incompetent evacuation planning and response by the supposed authorities.

Whatever measure of bureaucratic care there was, it doubtfully was saved for the Orleans Parish prisoners – castoffs who even before the storm had been relegated to caged shanty towns that, save the bars, might not be preferable to Rio’s slums. With Katrina approaching, no one was released from jail, not even if charged with the most minor offense, bonded out, or previously ordered released. Thus, the public drunk picked up the night before had to endure the same forced evacuation as violent criminals rightfully detained. Prisoners were quickly herded onto buses, though they were allowed no personal possessions. Indeed, prisoners made their passage without any identifying paperwork, and thus they were anonymously scattered about to prisons statewide without regard to their crimes charged. Alleged murderers and drunks shared cozy confines. Some were packed into prison yards and were tossed peanut butter sandwiches over the fence like meat pitched to starving dogs, so only the strongest ate and violence prevailed. Others waded through toxic waters only to be corralled on highway overpasses where, without any shade, prisoners’ skin was cooked in the blistering August sun for days on end.

Without a tracking system, authorities could not know for certain who was in custody, where they were being held, or what charges they faced. Army’s of volunteers eventually fanned out across the State to unscramble the mess. Months elapsed before even public drunks, who had been detained well past the maximum time faced for the alleged offense, could see a lawyer. In the interim, families had almost no way to track their loved ones in jail, and legal representation for the poor was essentially non-existent.

Widespread flooding did not spare the criminal justice system. The State courthouse in New Orleans was severely flooded and remained shuttered for months. Thus, state judges had to rely on limited courtrooms at the federal courthouse (which was not flooded) on rotating basis. The place where virtually all the State’s documentary and physical evidence was stored just so happened to be located in the basement of the courthouse and police station, which literally turned into a fishbowl of detritus, which was a moldy heap of trash when finally drained. (I’ll save the details for future posting.) Many witnesses (including police officers) evacuated the City and have not returned. The same can be said of residents who would fill the jury pool. With a reduced population and jury summonses going undelivered given so many relocations and unknown addresses, the state courts have been relegated to drawing only 150 jurors per day. Most public defenders either quit or were laid off following Katrina. An office of 50 or so lawyers was reduced to 4. The D.A.’s office similarly took its blows. Needless to say, the criminal justice system practically ground to a halt. Where to begin?

No comments: