NEW ORLEANS – A judge upset by the backlog of cases since Hurricane Katrina decided to release four New Orleans inmates from jail Friday and postpone their trials until they can get adequate representation from the spread-thin public defender's office.
District Judge Arthur Hunter warned that more releases could be coming as he criticized what he called the city's decades-long failure to protect the rights of poor defendants.
"It's only gotten worse since Hurricane Katrina," Hunter said.
Hunter has been threatening to release defendants because he said their constitutional right to adequate legal counsel was being violated.
The inmates' release involved three cases of misdemeanor drug possession and a fourth in which the defendant is accused of felony crime against nature, what Hunter called a minor felony.
The cases had been assigned to the city's public defender's office, which has struggled through budget and staff shortfalls since the hurricane struck in August 2005. Before Katrina, the indigent defender program had 70 lawyers, six investigators and six office workers with a $2.2 million annual budget, 75 percent of which was financed by traffic court fines.
Now, there are 11 lawyers, two investigators and one office staffer. Most of the staff loss is attributed to employees who evacuated during Katrina and did not return. In addition, funding from traffic fines has dropped sharply since the storm, in part because much of the city's population has not returned.
Hunter had tried to subpoena legislators and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to explain why the public defender's office could not be better funded. All refused to appear, arguing the subpoena violated constitutional separation of power.
A call to Blanco's office was not immediately returned Friday.
"This should just be a real alarm to legislators and to our citizens about how critical it is to fast-track a solution for this problem," said state Sen. Lydia Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature's Indigent Defense Task Force. She added that attracting lawyers back to the city was a bigger problem than funding.
Without an office for months and low on funding, a single lawyer in the program now faces about 130 cases in Hunter's court alone. There are 12 divisions of criminal court.
Stephen Singer, who recently was appointed lead trial counsel for the public defender's office, asked the judge to delay prosecution of the cases until his office has enough lawyers and money to provide effective counsel.
District Attorney Eddie Jordan said there are just over 3,000 cases currently in the criminal court system. Historically, as many as 90 percent of criminal cases in New Orleans use a public defender, according to the public defender office.
Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the private, nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, called on the Legislature and the governor to take steps to resolve the issue. "If justice cannot be obtained in Orleans Parish because of the failure to adequately fund the public defender's office, it places in doubt the city's ability to recover from the storm."