NEW ORLEANS – A judge on Friday ordered the release of up to 42 criminal defendants, saying they aren't being adequately represented by the city's financially struggling indigent defenders office, but he immediately delayed the order to mid April.
It wasn't clear how many suspects would be released after April 18 if Orleans Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter's order stands.
The order would suspend their prosecution but not dismiss the charges against them.
Assistant District Attorney David Pipes said his office might appeal. He said most of the 42 defendants face drug charges, but several are charged with violent crimes, including armed robbery and sexual battery.
Hunter faulted the Louisiana Legislature for failing to adequately fund the Indigent Defenders Office in New Orleans.
"Hurricane Katrina is no longer an excuse and the state has a budget surplus. 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," the judge wrote.
Before the hurricane hit, three-quarters of the defenders office's budget was financed by traffic court fines. That revenue dried up after the Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005.
Hunter, who had released some inmates facing misdemeanor drug possession charges last year for the same reason, said he delayed his new release order so he could get more information from the district attorney's office, the state bar association and the indigent defenders.
"I think the judge is clearly frustrated with the Louisiana Legislature's repeated failure to step up to its obligation to fund a critical aspect of the criminal justice system — that is, indigent defense," said Stephen Singer, lead trial counsel for the public defenders office.
State Rep. Danny Martiny, a Republican who heads a legislative task force on indigent defense, said he shares Hunter's frustration but called his decision to free prisoners "somewhat drastic."
"I don't know who that helps. It obviously helps the criminals," he said. "I'm trying to solve the problem, not create a new one."