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.]