Monday, December 25, 2006

Home for the Holidays

Leo made it home for Christmas. A humbug night in jail is now a night of holiday cheer with family, thanks to volunteers from the Student Hurricane Network. Leo’s offense was failing to appear last January for a court hearing to check on the status of his probation. He missed his court date because he was in Houston, where he evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. Saving himself apparently is no excuse. The court issued a warrant for his arrest despite the fact that the local courts (and most parts of the City) were barely open and functioning. The sheriff arrested Leo in September, and he’s been in jail ever since. Neither the sheriff nor the correctional facility where he was held, however, bothered to tell the Court that Leo was in their custody. He was not brought promptly before a judge, nor was any hearing scheduled within ten days, as is required by State Code. Instead, he waited patiently for four months – without seeing a lawyer or a judge – before the volunteers could find him.

Even then, it was a surprisingly slow ride home. We secured a court order for Leo’s immediate release last Thursday. The prison should have released Leo promptly and put him on a bus back to New Orleans, but the bureaucracy predictably dampened all sense of urgency. Despite a court order and having kept Leo four months past expiration, prison officials were in no hurry to get him home in time for the holidays. After some cajoling, the prison assured us that Leo would be on a bus to New Orleans on Saturday. I waited, sign and all, for Leo to arrive at the bus station so I could make sure he got from the station to the home he shares with his elderly sister. I left disappointed. Several people called the prison trying to track down Leo, but no one would give us any information. “Call back on Tuesday, after the holiday, when the full staff is here.” Eventually, we got a call from Leo himself. He had made it back to New Orleans by Sunday, just in time for Christmas.

To paraphrase Churchill, prison officials finally did right by Leo after exhausting every other possibility. We have located numerous other inmates who have been held in prison well past their allotted time. As for them, the prison Scrooges evidently have a few lumps of coal to go around. Maybe the new year will bring some cheer for them.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sight for Sore Eyes

I never wanted to see the inside of a prison. No one does, really, especially not in New Orleans. After arrest here, the accused are ushered in front of a magistrate who recites their charges and sets their bonds in a factory-like process. Before they can process what has just happened, before they’ve had a meaningful conversation (if any at all) with a lawyer, the accused are prodded along like shackled cattle back into the holding tank. Their eyes are filled variously with confusion, frustration, or anger, all of which give way to resignation and despair if they can’t make bail. What awaits them inside is a daily struggle to survive. The conditions are assuredly inhospitable if not inhumane. I confess that much comes as no surprise. There is an element, however, that I have come to crave.

It is that sense of humanity that we have discarded and forgotten. I came to realize this after visiting a particular client in jail for the second time. After I greeted him, he paused and looked at me searchingly. Then he said something like this: “You really came back. The guards told me nobody’s coming to see me. Everyone says there’s no way a lawyer will come and talk to you. And you’re here again?” I assured him that I would be back as many times as needed to prepare his defense. He can’t believe his luck. His hope is percolating, which I sense overtaking his despair.

This encounter seems repeated with each person I meet in jail. They all are surprised that a lawyer would take an interest in their cases. This is not to say that the public defenders have intentionally, systematically ignored their clients. Rather, they are simply too overloaded with cases to possibly devote such time to each of their clients. Hence, we have had to turn to volunteers, like the law students from the Student Hurricane Network, to help fill in the breach. What are we to make of a justice system that must depend on the good graces of volunteers? In just the first week of student trips, we have uncovered numerous pre-trial detainees who have been held well past the maximum time allowed for a speedy trial, and sometimes beyond the maximum time allowed for a sentence even if they had been convicted. It is a system that has failed. Without advocates, the accused are subject to the merciless winds of a system stacked against them.

We evidently have a tremendous blind spot for those accused of crimes, especially for those who are too poor to afford a lawyer. Out of sight, out of mind is the prevailing view. When we leave these people literally defenseless, we have stripped them of the most basic elements of their humanity, treating them purely as caged animals. (For the skeptics out there, I suppose I should note that the client described above is one that I believe to be wrongfully accused; the presumption of innocence, in any event, should serve as an equalizer for that conceit.) If we should accept that sorry state of affairs, then we might as well check our own humanity at the door.

Monday, December 18, 2006

No rest for the weary

Some of my recent commentary apparently struck a nerve. As well it should have, some would say. But that misses the point. To be sure, my prior post was provocative by design. My aim, however, was to draw attention to important issues, not to offend. While it’s easy to be critical, it takes courtesy to be constructive. My colorful commentary regrettably may have crossed a line from constructive to just plain coarse.

The challenging landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans naturally breeds frustration. People who have lived through it are all too familiar with the problems. For those with the benefit of critical distance, myself included, it’s all too easy to focus on the thicket of problems without honoring the accomplishments. Remember, 80% of the City was flooded little more than a year ago. For months, people couldn’t return to their homes, if they had homes to which they could return. City services were crippled, and people had to drive out of town just to buy groceries. Businesses are struggling, and tax revenues are down. Even in the best of circumstances, it would be challenging to reform the system on the do-it-now timetable everyone craves. Needless to say, current conditions in New Orleans are far from ideal. When you put it all into context – the on-the-ground reality of a crippled City – the incremental progress that has been made is truly impressive. And even more impressive are the people who, despite enormous personal and professional demands, still find the boundless time and energy to serve the community when it would be a whole lot easier to throw up your hands.

Of course, there is a long, bumpy road ahead. Naturally, there will be lively debates about the appropriate reforms. What is unacceptable is pretending all work is done, or casting blame without lending a hand. There is work to be done.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Students to the Rescue

Orleans Parish might make Kafka blush. After being arrested in Orleans Parish, a defendant is brought before a magistrate for an initial appearance to receive formal notice of the charges and for setting of bond. State law also requires that a lawyer be appointed to represent the defendant if he or she is indigent. In practice, the court may as well appoint a mayfly. If the defendant cannot make bail, in all likelihood he won’t see or speak to a lawyer again until trial. He has no one to advise him, conduct an investigation, or tell him when he will be going to court. There are untold numbers of such inmates from Orleans Parish sitting in jail waiting (months and sometimes much longer) to speak to someone, anyone really.

Student volunteers are on their way. Waves of them, in fact. (Or locust swarms, if you’re asking the Sheriff.) In conjunction with the Student Hurricane Network, law students from around the country are spending their winter breaks to fan out across Louisiana to interview inmates, create client files, and help queue them up for effective legal representation. The students must depend entirely on their own dime for travel, accommodations, and expenses. (They are not too proud for your donations!) If the State cannot and will not address its own problems, at least we know we can rely on the generosity of indefatigable student volunteers to save the day. Kafka’s Josef K. never had it so good.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Drunk Justice

The New Orleans criminal justice system is broken, and the people charged with fixing it are a bunch of drunks. Not the over-served-on-Bourbon-Street variety, but drunks all the same. The muckety-mucks minding the store would like you to think they’ve got everything under control. They don’t. They’re barely holding it together with bureaucratic spit and tape. Like alcoholics convinced by their own excuses, they won’t even acknowledge the problem. And anyone who offers cover or turns a blind eye might as well be pouring the drink.

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. State prisons are chock full of Orleans Parish inmates awaiting trial who have never spoken to a lawyer. As many as 1,800 of them. In the 1970s, Orleans Parish had only about 800 inmates; thirty years later, that number reached 8,000 despite the City shedding 100,000 people. We’re not stocking jails with newly minted violent criminals – FBI crime statistics betray that farce – but consider yourself safe from Tarot card readers and dope smokers. The Constitution is virtually unknown in these quarters. Judges set bonds (a supposedly individualized determination) without defendants, and often no defense lawyers, present. The Legislature evidently finds inconvenient the State’s burden of proof and thus has passed (patently unconstitutional) laws to shift key evidentiary burdens to the defense. Never mind innocent until proved guilty; the D.A. shamelessly prefers to detain indefinitely anyone who's poor while ignoring something we like to call due process. And the Sheriff is only too happy to oblige, earning $30 a night for every inmate in the Parish motel. Three strikes – or three feather-weight victimless crimes – and you’ll have plenty of time, at taxpayers’ expense, to repent for your sins. My client charged with soliciting oral sex for $13 faces twenty years to life. Too poor to pay your fines? Nonpayment will land you right back in jail. For municipal offenses, judges offer the choice of paying fines or spending 60 days in jail: The rich can go home, the poor get three squares and a bed at the Orleans Parish Bastille.

As recently reported at the Criminal Justice Task Force meeting, there has been some modest amount of progress. But this is no time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Like angry drunks, the powers-that-be still scorn anyone who dares suggest any reforms. (The judges of the criminal court recently threatened contempt of the reform-minded board overseeing the public defenders.) The first step to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. The problems here are long-standing, not just a Katrina hangover. It’s time for an intervention.

[This post has generated some chatter. Please see my follow-up here.]

Monday, December 04, 2006

Filling in for Lady Liberty

Last night, I attended the monthly gathering of the Huddled Masses Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Historically, clubs of this sort served as benevolent aid societies, a social network that offered its members help in time of need, particularly for funerals. (The clubs served as an early form of insurance in the African-American community.) This particular group, formed not long after Hurricane Katrina departed, is an eclectic mix of locals that gathers to fraternize (and sometimes commiserate) over a pot-luck dinner and listen to a monthly speaker. The pleasure part here is much the social aid, which otherwise seems confined to trading notes about preferred mental health drugs. I guess Ellis Island has room for the tired and poor, but not the self-medicated and intoxicated.

This month’s speaker was Dr. Richard Deichmann, former chief of medicine at Baptist Hospital, who stayed behind to help evacuate the hospital as Katrina wreaked havoc on the City. His harrowing and heart-wrenching account would leave you speechless. (Dr. Deichmann’s full story is memorialized in his new book, Code Blue: A Katrina Physician’s Memoir.) The hospital was an evacuation center, not only serving as a drop-off point for some of the City’s most ailing patients, but also stuffed full of patients’ families (and pets!) who had nowhere to turn. Conditions rapidly deteriorated once generators ran out of fuel or were swamped. Without electricity to run air conditioning, temperatures inside the hospital reached 110 degrees in the hot summer; doctors and nurses carted patients up flights of stairs to the parking garage and roof to give patients the marginal relief of 95 degree humid air and hand-fanning with papers. One person asked, “So how did people die?” Any number of clinical reasons could be cataloged for these seriously ill patients, but Dr. Deichmann focused on one common affliction: despair. One could make the same observation about a struggling City. What is left if you have no hope? The Crescent City has a treasured history, rich traditions, and perseverant people who won’t let the City die. Take two of these with a little drink, and call the doctor in the morning. Cheers to the Huddled Masses!