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.]


Anonymous said...

BP, your candor and clarity is much appreciated, needed, and tres important. But who will be there to bail you out when the gendarmes come?


Philip Seymour Morphy said...

So what do we do? I am on the cusp of returning or not. I am not hearing anything that tells me to return.

Anonymous said...

Good report. Maybe it helps explain the Louisiana Gulag. the US has more people in prison p/c than any other country. Louisiana ranks #1 in the US. See the graphics:
and this

Anonymous said...

Don't do the crime if you can't pay the time.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I was in municipal court trying to help a client with a "disturbing the peace" ticket (which he got because he couldn't speak English, and didn't understand what was happening when the polcie officers told him to back up), and I was told his options are simple: plead guilty, or the city attorney will call INS to pick him up (stupid assumption, considering no one bothered to even ask if he had an ID). Even more sadly, the only way I was able to do anything for the guy was by name-dropping. What has happened to a fair defense?

Anonymous said...

We are criminalizing a huge group of people, particularly young people, for drinking between the ages of 18-21 and for using drugs, most particularly for smoking pot, not just in Louisiana. Kids growing up today expect to be arrested at one time or another. Those with money can usually get out of it. It's terrible. Thanks for trying to do something about it, no matter how frustrating it is.

As for your theme, there is no question in my mind that alcoholic behavior involves clearly definable patterns of interaction that have nothing to do with the drinking itself. I know for a fact that these patterns can infect institutions as well as individuals and family units. The Catholic Church, the KnockingShitDownCompany (where I work) and the Bush Administration come to mind. Caring more about how things appear than how they really are, telling stupid unnecessary lies for no good reason, and expecting your needs to be anticipated while being unable to identify them and ask that they be met, top the list.

Excellent post. Thanks to Ernie for pointing it out. :)

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