NEW ORLEANS – An irate judge halted the prosecution of 42 criminal defendants Wednesday, saying the city's underfunded public defender's office isn't providing adequate representation.
State Judge Arthur Hunter also ordered 16 of the defendants released from jail even though they have not made bail. However, he acknowledged that a state appeals court would not allow that to happen immediately.
Hunter had ordered the 42 people freed last month but delayed that ruling until a hearing Wednesday. He has not dismissed the charges, most of which are drug-related.
Hunter also set a May 7 hearing for dozens of other defendants who he said are poor but cannot get adequate representation from the Office of Indigent Defenders.
"I'm up to an additional 40 people since March 26 who don't have lawyers, period," Hunter said Wednesday before the hearing. "It's not inadequate representation in these cases, it's no representation."
At the hearing, Republican state Rep. Danny Martiny, who chairs a legislative task force on indigent defense, said he's filing a bill that would set up a statewide indigent defense board, replacing the state's 41 local boards.
"The bill would transfer power to a single public defenders board," Martiny said. "Right now, there are no unified standards, no accountability. If this bill passes, that would change."
Last year, Gov. Kathleen Blanco persuaded lawmakers to double state funding for indigent defense statewide, from $10 million to $20 million annually. Martiny said he expects the Legislature to approve an additional $7 million this year.
Hunter, however, noted that a Justice Department study found Orleans Parish alone needs $7 million to $10 million annually to adequately fund indigent defense.
About half of the 82 defendants Hunter said had no lawyers were already out on bail, the judge said. Those defendants face charges ranging from possession of marijuana to aggravated rape, he said.
Powell Miller, the public defender assigned to Hunter's court, said he has more than 160 clients and could not give adequate representation to the 42 in question.
Assistant District Attorney David Pipes argued that prosecution should go forward with the judge appointing private attorneys for the defendants. He planned to appeal Hunter's decision against appointing private attorneys.
Christine Lehmann, representing the public defender's office, said money on appointed attorneys would be better used to fund her office.
New Orleans has been beset with a huge backlog of cases since Hurricane Katrina. Courthouse traffic has been slowed by repairs, police have accused the district attorney of failing to prosecute many suspects and prosecutors have accused the police of not bringing them solid cases.
Hunter has been battling what he sees as the Office of Indigent Defenders' inability to adequately represent hundreds of poor defendants since Katrina.
Before the hurricane, three-quarters of the office's budget was financed by traffic court fines. That revenue dried up after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
In October 2006, Hunter ordered four inmates released from a city jail and postponed their trials, saying their constitutional right to adequate legal counsel was being violated. A state appeals court sent the cases back to him for additional review.