Friday, April 06, 2007

Sober Justice

How's this for a judicial cold shower and pot of coffee:

"Indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation, and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western civilized nation." In short, it's a "legal hell."

Save your hate mail for someone else. Those aren't my words; those are the words of none other than Arthur Hunter, a sitting criminal district court judge. Judge Hunter has vowed to release indigent pretrial detainees rather than require them to wait in jail while the cash-strapped, under-staffed public defenders try to represent them. Sounds like Judge Hunter has thrown down the gauntlet. I confess, I think his comments are overstated. But now that he's got everyone's attention, what to make of it?

The D.A.'s office has suggested that the shortage of public defenders should be remedied by judges appointing private lawyers to take on overflow cases. I like that idea in principle, though I'm not sure it's a viable solution for at least two reasons. First, the license to practice law is not designed for indentured servitude. While I firmly believe all lawyers absolutely should take on pro bono cases, forcing lawyers to take on cases for which they're either inexperienced or uninterested will result in poor representation. Defense lawyers must be zealous advocates, not courtroom ornaments. And if we are going to pay private lawyers to take on criminal cases (like federal cases under the Criminal Justice Act), then we need to find a pot of money. Back to square one.

Second, having a bunch of lawyers taking on occasional cases probably is not administratively feasible. The criminal system is unique and not always easy (or obvious) to navigate. Thus, the already over-burdened public defenders likely will end up spending so much time on the telephone and holding private lawyers' hands that the public defenders might as well handle the cases themselves. Hello again, square one.

So what's the solution? I wish I knew, and so do all the smart, dedicated people who have been working on this problem for a while. One obvious answer is more money. Steve Singer, the trial chief for the Public Defender, has suggested that he needs a budget of $2.1 million to operate effectively. That's about 35% more than the office has now, but still a relatively modest amount. If we are serious about having an effective justice system, the City should search harder to find a few extra dollars. Perhaps instead of wasting money locking up ever petty offender before trial in the first place, we could spend a little more on defending people and getting them integrated back into the community. If not, the City might as well invest in some handbaskets to get through the legal hell.


sl said...

Not very comforting news, but Judge Hunter is right. This is a failure of the state legislature. They are the ones ultimately to blame.

Nola Blogger said...

I agree that private lawyers should not be forced to take these cases. Tulane and Broad is a zoo, and if you're not experienced over there, the most overworked indigent defender will still do better than an inexperienced criminal attorney with all the time in the world.