Friday, February 23, 2007

Volunteers Be Gone?

Following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Supreme Court put out a welcome mat for volunteer lawyers: The Court issued a special rule to allow out-of-state attorneys to represent, on a pro bono basis, indigent defendants facing criminal charges in Orleans Parish as long as a Louisiana attorney co-signs all pleadings and provides "oversight and supervision" of the volunteer. The evident purpose of this rule was to allow the underfunded Public Defenders' Office to draw on volunteers to help resuscitate the public defense system that was floundering post-Katrina. I and other volunteers have been operating under this rule for several months, essentially serving as adjunct public defenders. That may be about to change after the the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court ruled yesterday that out-of-state attorneys may not represent indigent defendants unless a Louisiana-licensed attorney is present for all court proceedings. Volunteers still may be welcome in spirit, but their value may be seriously diminished.

Having volunteer lawyers lightens the load for the full-time public defenders and enables the full-time staff to shift their efforts to other clients and matters. Requiring the regular public defenders to be present in the courtroom every time a volunteer appears for a hearing would diminish that value. Indeed, if the regular public defender has to be present anyway, one might say we should do away with the volunteers altogether.

I'm not bothered by having another lawyer present. Indeed, given my limited experience, I welcome the back-stop -- someone to grab the wheel if I'm veering off course and heading for a tree. But I don't think there is any need for a local lawyer to be present at every hearing. Nor do I think there is much need for local lawyers to hold the hands of more experienced out-of-state attorneys. After all, there is not a great deal of variation in criminal defense from one jurisdiction to the next. And as long as the local lawyers are providing "oversight and supervision," there should not be any concern that an experienced out-of-state lawyer will skip over important variations in the local practice. Most jurisdictions have "pro hac vice" rules that enable out-of-state lawyers to practice locally for limited number of cases under similar circumstances without requiring the local lawyer to be present at every hearing. While the Louisiana Supreme Court's rule in these circumstances does not limit the number of cases a volunteer can handle, it it not clear why the rule should be more onerous than the customary pro hac vice rules.

One could read the Chief Judge's ruling cynically to reflect a disdain for outsiders coming in and gumming up the "old way" of doing things. I very much doubt, however, that is fair and accurate. I think the judges generally appreciate the value of the volunteers, and I am confident that the judges are not interested in merely having local lawyers serve as ornaments or potted plants in the courtroom. But neither do the judges want to oversee moot courts for inexperienced out-of-staters, setting up instant grounds for appeal for dissatisfied defendants. (Of course, volunteers typically offer vigorous and thorough representation that over-extended public defenders may not be able to provide to every client.) In any case, the Chief Judge's ruling is being appealed, and I suspect this matter will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone to ensure the adequate and effective representation of indigent defendants.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Funny Valentine

The Feds announced that they are providing funds to establish a community domestic violence center in New Orleans. The center will provide shelter and centralized resources, such as counseling, medical care, and social services to victims of domestic abuse. The U.S. Department of Justice, along with the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, also has committed funding and resources to help re-open the Crime Lab in New Orleans. Keep it coming!

Friday, February 09, 2007

New Orleans' Iraq

New Orleans is under siege, or so it seems. The t.v. sound bites are as familiar as they are tired: Crime is brimming over, thugs control the streets, people don’t feel safe in their own homes. What was once verboten (and racist) – that law enforcement should focus on young black men – now seems the received wisdom. Indeed, the Sheriff in neighboring Jefferson Parish unabashedly and unapologetically suggests that targeting law enforcement at black people in white neighborhoods has helped dampen crime there. Perhaps there is proof to be found in the statistical pudding. It’s hard to overlook the fact that most murders here involve young black men (children?) killing other young black men, in what appear primarily to be turf disputes involving drugs. And the mushrooming murder rate seems only the trailing edge to a massive crime storm. Avoiding crime these days is a lot like dodging rain drops – you just hope you don’t get soaked in a downpour.

Of course, Sheriff Lee’s approach likely won’t so much control crime as merely displace it. More precisely, even if this approach can dampen the latest crime wave, it does nothing to address the root causes of crime, which means we’re likely to see another flare up in the future when we let our guard down. (Nor do I mean to suggest that the Sheriff could address that issue or should be held accountable in that regard.) And I’m not so sure that the community as a whole is in a privileged position to criticize the Sheriff on this point. At least if you’re judging by the latest march on City Hall – where throngs of mostly white citizens berated the Mayor and Police Superintendent with chants of “enough is enough” – you’d get the feeling that the public’s hysteria reflects not necessarily that there are too many murders (of course there are), but that those murders are now seeping into white neighborhoods. (The offending straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been the apparently random murder of a white woman at 5am in her home in the Marigny, while her surviving husband was shot while clutching their young child.) One can’t help but think that the public’s reaction would have remained somewhat muted if all murders were business-as-usual, black-on-black, turf war disputes. The black community’s conspicuous low turnout for the march on City Hall arguably fuels that perception.

Our present crime control approach seems nothing more than a scheme to corral crime into certain areas. The question is where to corral it. In the past, most murders seemed localized to housing projects and other poor, and mostly black, parts of town. A client observed that the closing of most public housing in New Orleans may be animating the apparent crime diaspora. As that theory goes, because most public housing and many poorer neighborhoods remain largely uninhabited, the criminal element may be migrating to more affluent neighborhoods. No doubt, that view feeds off of a deep-seated cynicism (and racism), but perhaps there is something to it. After all, the public didn’t rise up and march on City Hall in years past (early 1990s?) when the murder rate here spiked, but most murders were of the black-on-black-in-the-projects variety. And thus Sheriff Lee’s approach may simply return us to the halcyon times when murders happened, but not in my literal back yard.

As one friend recently observed, this City’s (and probably most Cities') take on crime control – and really social problems in general – has been a lot like the war on terrorism: Let’s fight them over there (Iraq), rather than have to fight them here and everywhere. Much like the war in Iraq, however, that is an easy starting point, but it won’t be mistaken for a plan to address the problem. And we’ve never really had a plan, and certainly no urgency, for addressing the root cause of problems in poor areas and projects. If we are serious about getting crime under control, rather than merely displacing it, we have to put our might into disrupting the cycle of poverty that undeniably fuels crime. Otherwise, we may end up ceding our City to warring factions and spiraling violence.