Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Rebuilding Completed?

Sometimes all you can do is laugh at a situation else you'll be brought to tears. Perhaps a little humor and satire from the Onion will help prod things along.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Fight Crime, Not Mosquitos

A quick footnote to my last post. The Times Picayune reported today on salaries for the Mayor's top aides. I was a bit startled to see that the City's "Mosquito Control Director" makes $128,242 a year, which is actually more than even Hizzoner CRN the Mayor is paid! But what's truly disgraceful is that the chief fly catcher is making $100,000 more than a new recruit for the NOPD! I know mosquitoes are a serious health risk, and I'm sure some NRA sympathizer has some statistics showing how many more people die from mosquito-borne infections than gunshots (much like those who point out that driving is more dangerous, statistically, than flying), but come on. I realize times are tough and budgets are tight, but how about a little administrative belt tightening in other areas and putting our resources to work in areas that are most vital to the community's safety and survival.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Why don't we have better law enforcement? A pithy bumper-sticker slogan may provide a clue: "Pay Police Like Your Life Depends On It." Police officers, particularly in New Orleans, have a dangerous -- and too often thankless -- job. As a defense lawyer, I often see what may be police excess and overreaching. But most police officers are honorable people doing a job that most of us would never want to do, working under immense stress, dealing with unsavory people, and all for very little money. If we are serious about law enforcement, we should be certain our police officers have the resources (and salaries) they need.

It's a real boon to defense lawyers having police officers fail to appear in court, or lacking basic resources to run a crime lab, or being simply too overworked to get the facts straight in a written report. But for the sake of the community, that's obviously not a good thing. I overheard someone in court today say that the New Orleans Police Department is losing, on average, 17 officers per month. If that's true (and I have no idea if it is or not), the City's problems are only going to get worse. You can't well survive as a City if you don't have basis law and order, and I'm afraid we are witnessing the slow erosion of whatever peace remains in the City.

There was a little noticed report on the news the other day that said the District Attorney's Office is setting up a task force of prosecutors who will prosecute only the most violent offenses. Those ADAs will enjoy drastically reduced case loads (about 20 cases per person) and will be attracted to stay with an increased salary. From the defense perspective, this is not necessarily good news. But as citizens, we should all applaud the extra attention being given to the most serious cases. Stop diverting resources to petty offenses and concentrate on the most serious stuff. If you want to get crime under control, you have to ante up the resources to address it.

What about public defense? Obviously, I'm in favor of increasing resources there as well. Some may say that defense lawyers merely perpetuate the problem by helping guilty people go free. Perhaps that has a kernel of truth, but a well functioning defense system also keeps the system running more smoothly and efficiently, which translates into less wasted resources. It also means people can trust both sides of the law enforcement equation. No one wants to live in a police state where the State has unlimited power, and having a robust defense system keeps it all working in a comfortable balance.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Like It or Not" - More on Crime in New Orleans

Rather than subject everyone to my droning monologue, I'd like to share with you an interesting post from Bart Everson's blog, "B.Rox," discussing crime in New Orleans. Many of the comments are equally interesting. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Hell? Check.
High water? Double check!
Saints in the Superbowl? Check this.

Maybe there's something to this "destiny" or "fate" thing. Everyone outside of Chicago seems to be pulling for the Saints. (Everyone except the Maloney brothers.)

Geaux Saints!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Crime and Politics

The flurry of murders to start the year has fueled the perception that violent crime is out of control in New Orleans. It doesn't really matter whether crime is in fact any worse, statistically, than in years past. The community seems to have lost confidence in its leaders to protect the City from the apparent seige. Right now, gunshots speak much louder than any marches, press conferences, and talk of curfews. If City Hall and criminals are both vying for our attention, the bad guys are winning. You get the sense that we're hanging by one hand on the window sill of law and order, and the criminals are slowly peeling our fingers away before we take a fateful plunge. We need leaders who will yank us back inside from the slippery ledge, not those who can only promise a flimsy net if we've already lost our grip.

The whole situation reminds me of Grouch Marx' observation about politics: It is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. I don't know what the solution is. I'm fairly certain late-night checkpoints aren't it. I drove through one the other night and thought it a strange use of resources. The police can't blockade every route through the City, and they seem most likely to end up arresting a bunch of drunk drivers. (I doubt you could say drunk driving is part of the City's 'charm,' but installing checkpoints right before Mardi Gras might dampen some of the tourists' enthusiasm for the place, and we certainly don't want to give people any more reason not to visit.) I don't see how stopping cars at stationary checkpoints in the middle of the night is going to have a significant impact on violent crime.

The emphasis on community policing seems a good place to start. Building relationships and confidence in the community may encourage concerned citizens to contact their community partners when they see something suspicious, and hopefully to come forward when they witness crimes. Spending resources investigating and prosecuting the most violent criminals also seems sensible. We've been trying the trickle-up approach -- the theory that zero tolerance for petty crime will reduce more serious crime -- but that doesn't seem to be working. (Perhaps people who know they won't be harassed for every petty infraction will be more willing to help the police combat more serious crime?) We need more leadership and a new approach, not political pep rallies and more of the same.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Free at last?

Mercifully, the law prevailed and Leo is out of jail. Case closed, so the docket reflects. Like many criminal cases, this one has been a minuet of law and emotion. Usually it’s the defense lawyer making the emotional plea that the law is too harsh and unfair. Here, the law had to tame the court’s emotions. The trial judge was frustrated with Leo because, in his view, Leo had not satisfied his probationary bargain. Thus, he tried to keep Leo in jail despite lacking the legal basis. The court of appeals, however, confirmed that Leo’s probationary term had expired, thus extinguishing the courts’ dominion over Leo. The trial judge nevertheless defiantly threatened to keep Leo in jail. The judge relented as we prepared another emergency appeal. Leo is free, at least legally speaking.

Leo patiently waited for justice to run its course, emotions in check, despite having spent four months in jail for no good reason, and then another week in jail while we wrestled with the trial judge over the limits to his authority. Leo has not complained, at least not publicly, and he has carried himself with quiet dignity throughout this process. Yet, his equanimity does not dampen the emotions percolating beneath.

Leo describes his tangle with the law like reciting facts from a textbook. The emotions take charge, however, when he recounts his arrest for a phantom probation violation. The court issued a warrant for Leo’s arrest for failing to appear at a status hearing in January 2006, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina stampeded through New Orleans. Leo was arrested in September 2006, but he is at pains describe the rest, not for loss of words, but lack of comprehension. Leo, like just about everyone else, had evacuated from New Orleans and was busy concentrating on his emotional and physical survival after Katrina. In January 2006, he was living in Houston, trying to rebuild his life and planning his return while the City of New Orleans hobbled toward its own recovery. The court, which was barely operating out of borrowed space at that time, nevertheless faulted Leo for missing a status hearing. Leo’s supposed dereliction – at a time when the City could hardly offer electricity, clean water, mail service, shelter, or police protection – would lead to an arrest warrant. How is it that a man can lose everything – his home, his friends, possessions, familiar surroundings – and yet the State tries to take more?

Evidently perspective vanished with Katrina and vanquished our priorities. People here, especially those who are poor and black, were literally abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The levees failed. The government failed. Civilization failed as people had to fend for themselves in the newfound Hobbesian state of nature. Emotions run high in post-Katrina New Orleans, and only those who have lived through it all can really begin to understand the magnitude of pain visited upon the people here. But even then it is hard to comprehend the indignity of Leo’s fate. He is free at last, but he will carry a burden of painful emotions. It will take time to heal the wounds and restore perspective. For now, the law may have to mediate as all sides struggle with emotions and wrestle for the City’s soul.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Piling On

As if the criminal justice system isn't under enough strain, here's an example of how not to solve the problem. Frustrated with the lack of public defenders to represent juvenile defendants, the Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court held in contempt and jailed Steve Singer, the trial chief of the public defender's office. Brilliant! There aren't enough lawyers, so toss one of the few experienced public defenders in jail. Fortunately, Mr. Singer was released by day's end, leading to discussions with the Chief Judge about plans to increase the number of lawyers. What a way to spark a conversation.

The Chief Judge's frustration is understandable. (Indeed, any sensible person probably shares his impatience.) But this is a curious way to tackle the problem. Surely no public defender needs to see central lock-up from the inside to know the system isn't working. Maybe some others could use a jailhouse invitation to spark some change. Why not jail prosecutors who routinely are not ready to proceed to trial and seek continuances as matter of routine? Or police officers who fail to appear for scheduled hearings? Or Sheriff's deputies who fail to transport prisoners for court hearings? Or court officials who can't seem to schedule proceedings in an efficient manner (rather than the woefully inefficient daily cattle calls)? Or legislators who won't allocate enough funds to pay to fix the system? Or the voters who keep electing these folks to office without demanding more accountability and results? The quotidian blame game is no solution. Perhaps a little more cooperation among all the players will help advance the ball.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A New Year, But More of the Same

Leo made it home for the holidays, but his vacation was short lived. Yesterday, the court sent him right back to jail after he allegedly failed a drug test. Never mind the fact that he just spent four months in jail for concededly no good reason (because no one notified the court that Leo was in custody). Never mind that his probation should have expired long ago. The court has him under its judicial thumb, seemingly in perpetuity. More grist for the appellate mill. Stay tuned for further updates.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Farewell to Ford

The federal government is closed today to mark the passing of President Gerald Ford. The state funeral was relatively modest as compared to another recent past president's, probably to reflect Ford's modest character and even more modest imprint on the nation's history. Save flags at half mast, Ford's passing enjoyed seemingly less hype than James Brown's. (Some would say the King of Soul's trademark moves will have a more lasting impact on the nation.) That's unfortunate.

The pundits' trivia grab-bag is shallow for the man who served less than a full term and is branded as the first unelected president. (Some say we've now had two.) They all note that his preemptive pardon of Nixon strained his own legitimacy. (History may well judge him wise for sparing the country more of the needless sideshow.) And we know Ford presided over the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. (And Ford apparently had little taste for Iraq.)

We may forget that Ford played on two national champion football teams. I, for one, am too young to remember Ford dodging an assassination attempt by one of Charles Manson's followers. Few could name the Helsinki Accords as a crowning achievement, and even fewer have the faintest clue what the Accords signified. (Count me among the Accords-illiterate.)

But Ford has a lasting legacy, one that has had a profound impact on the nation. Ford appointed John Paul Stevens as associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Justice Stevens continues to serve more than three decades later. Stevens, a nominal republican nominee, hardly fits the familiar ideological mold we've seen from recent presidents. Depending on your leanings, you may variously curse or celebrate Stevens' ideological defiance. In any case, he has been a champion for some of society's least popular and most vulnerable, especially in the realm of criminal defense. Whether Ford knew it or not, this would be his enduring legacy.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful new year!