New Orleans Justice Systems Struggle to Operate After Katrina

Their faces glisten with sweat, their red-rimmed eyes stare ahead vacantly as they're herded into the sweltering room where another day of court is about to begin.

"Sorry you have to sit on the floor," Commissioner Marie Bookman says to about 50 men and women in orange shirts and pants and leg shackles before she calls her first case in the bond hearing.

It's a spring morning in the New Orleans court system's long road back from Hurricane Katrina.

This session of magistrate court is temporarily being held in a police lineup room furnished with plastic tables. Flies buzz about. Two giant fans offer no relief; a few deputies seem about to nod off in the oven-like heat.

Bookman spots a gray-haired inmate with an arm cast leaning against a wall, and asks that he be given a seat. But a deputy reminds her a chair can be used as a weapon. So the man remains standing, mopping his brow with a black bandanna.

Most of the men here have been arrested on drug charges; most of the women — some barefoot, some in stiletto heels — have been accused of prostitution. Few can afford lawyers.

Everybody else is represented by the same public defender, who hasn't had time to interview anyone beforehand. It's the commissioner — blue jeans peeking out from under her black robe — who flips through manila folders and questions the prosecutor.

She asks about residue in a crack pipe in one case, the number of guns in another.

Occasionally, she addresses the defendants:

She has questions for one ruddy-faced man: "You're homeless? No trailer? No friends? No relatives?"

She has a quip for another: "This is your lucky day — it's going to be $10,000," she says, setting bond on a charge of marijuana possession.

She moves through the cases quickly, making a joke or two, flashing a fleeting smile when a lawyer for a woman with an uncanny name — Katrina — laughingly implores: "Your honor, don't take it out on her!"

No one can make bail, so it's back to jail for what can be a long wait — up to two months — before they see a lawyer again.

As one man shambles up the stairs, Tulane University law professor Pam Metzger leans over to a visitor and whispers: "How do you like our brand of justice?"

The criminal justice system — like so much else in New Orleans — was ravaged by the hurricane. The courthouse was flooded. Files were ruined, evidence contaminated. Judges and lawyers lost their offices and homes. Witnesses and victims fled for their lives.

Ten months later, this vision of legal hell is slowly being cleared away. As the city heads into a steamy summer, judges are back in court and trials have begun.

But it's going to take much longer to fix a system whose long-neglected flaws were ruthlessly exposed by Katrina — defendants run through hearings at near tobacco-auction speed, 60-day jail stays without seeing a lawyer, low pay for overworked public defenders and a jambalaya of outmoded statutes that some scholars say should have been overhauled a century ago.

"I compare it to the levees," says Stephen Singer, an assistant professor at Loyola University's School of Law. "They were always substandard but nobody realized it until the hurricane came. The same thing with the criminal justice system. It was always substandard. It was less obvious unless you were in it."

After Katrina's floodwaters receded, though, everybody recognized the problems, says David Carroll, director of research and evaluation at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

"Katrina sort of ripped off the Band-Aid — it removed the pretension that the system was working," he says. The storm also provided a rare opportunity, Carroll adds:

"They're now able to start with a clean slate."

To rebuild, this tradition-minded community must come up with not only money but fresh ideas and the political will to make them a reality.

Some changes already have occurred. A new board has been selected to oversee the New Orleans indigent defender program, which represents about 85 percent of people arrested.

The program has been cash-starved for years — both here and throughout the state — because it's funded primarily by fees tacked on to traffic fines. After Katrina, tickets became nonexistent because everyone had evacuated the flooded city. With little money, three-quarters of the defenders were laid off, leaving thousands of prisoners in legal limbo.

Two judges recently ruled this kind of funding system is unconstitutional. The legal battle is now heading to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which has declared in other cases that reforms are needed.

A new report sponsored by the Justice Department also recommended more stable funding and offered this grim assessment: For the poor in New Orleans, "justice is simply unavailable."

How much will change depends, in part, on how much money is available. Political and legal leaders are hoping millions of dollars pouring in will give the criminal justice system a jump start.

The state bar association already has kicked in about $1 million. The Justice Department has awarded the New Orleans indigent defender program $2.8 million — though the study it sponsored said more than $10 million is needed for the year. And Gov. Kathleen Blanco's call to double to $20 million the amount going to indigent defense for Louisiana was approved last week by the legislature.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan agrees, too, that the defenders' office needs more money and a more reliable source of funds.

Some plans already are being put in place to help inmates and end what many view as one of the system's most mind-boggling features: the lack of attorneys for indigent suspects in the early stages of their cases.

Poor people have defenders at their bond hearings, but unless they can hire a lawyer afterward, they don't have representation until they're officially charged. Prosecutors can take up to 60 days to make that decision for felonies — during which time suspects are be locked up if they can't make bail.

The remedy?

Metzger, the Tulane professor and member of the local indigent board, says two dozen lawyers have volunteered to participate in a "quick fix" plan, representing the poor from the time of the arrest until charges are filed. "It gives them an advocate and ... it ensures some accountability," she says.

These changes and the new focus on the system have given many people hope.

"I truly believe that we are on the cusp of something new and better," says Jelpi Picou, director of The Capital Appeals Project. "It's what gets me out of bed every morning."

Calvin Johnson, former chief judge of the Orleans Parish criminal courts, sees it much the same way. "I think we're finally seizing the moment," he says.

The immediate task is to undo or at least cope with the extraordinary damage the hurricane did to people and property — a process Johnson estimates could take two years.

After Katrina, thousands of inmates were evacuated to jails and prisons around Louisiana, some as much as six hours away.

Private lawyers mobilized to represent inmates on an emergency basis after indigent defenders were laid off. But since there was no central list of clients, it was hard to figure out at first how many people were being held, what they were charged with — or even where they were locked up.

Hundreds of prisoners were eventually sprung after lawsuits were filed. They included inmates awaiting trial on petty offenses who'd already served more time than they would have if convicted and those held past their release dates without anyone noticing.

"Bayou Guantanamo" is the phrase that Neal Walker, director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, used to describe their predicament — a reference to the U.S. naval base in Cuba where detainees from the war on terror have been held indefinitely.

"People were hundreds of miles from a courthouse, with no court date and no lawyers," he says. "If these conditions existed in Mexico, our State Department would have been issuing a blistering human rights report."

One man who got in a fistfight three days before Katrina was jailed 4 1/2 months before prosecutors decided not to file charges, Walker says.

Another pleaded guilty to marijuana possession before the storm hit and received a six-month suspended sentence — meaning no jail — but was rearrested because he couldn't pay court costs. He was locked up for three months, the lawyer says, "for being poor."

A man accused by an ex-girlfriend of taking $50 after he entered her house while she was gone was jailed for a year without being interviewed by his public defender, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Jordan, the district attorney, says he knows some inmates fell through the cracks early on and his office has tried to be reasonable in working with defense lawyers.

But he says each case needs to be judged on its own merits and simply throwing open the prison doors would be irresponsible. "There are a number of individuals who should be in jail," Jordan says, "and we're going to fight to keep them in jail."

The debate over inmates is just one part of the lingering turmoil in the system.

Prosecutors still aren't back in their building, which were severely damaged by floodwaters. But the district attorney's office recently moved out of its unlikely temporary home — a dimly lighted nightclub — to more suitable accommodations.

Judges and lawyers whose homes were damaged or ruined still commute from as far as Georgia and Ohio. And witnesses and victims remain scattered across the nation.

"I never would have imagined, entering a new hurricane season, that the criminal justice system continues to scratch, crawl and drag its way to some level of normalcy," says Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter.

Judges face a backlog of an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 cases, compared with about 3,800 before Katrina. They had been using two federal courtrooms, handling a sharply reduced number of cases for security and transportation reasons, as their 1930s Art Deco courthouse was repaired.

Even now, only 7 of 13 courtrooms have reopened. When jury trials resumed this month, the fire marshal restricted the number of people allowed inside because of limited exits.

The actual prosecution of cases poses its own obstacles, says Rick Teissier, a defense lawyer appointed by Hunter to evaluate the indigent defender program.

"How do you find the victims? What do you do about the cops who were fired? Do these cases wash away with them running away?" he says, referring to the testimony of police dismissed after failing to report for duty in the tumultuous days after the storm. "How long is it going to take to process the evidence?"

Drugs, weapons, clothing and safes containing cash and jewels all were submerged in flooded police and court evidence rooms. "I was stepping over guns and hoping none of them were loaded," says Katherine Mattes, a Tulane law school professor who videotaped the waterlogged areas for an official record.

Mattes says some evidence has been lost, some contaminated. "How much? I don't if anyone can rightfully say," she says.

Johnson, the former chief judge, believes most evidence will be salvaged but has another worry: Luring back experienced workers who've settled outside Louisiana. "They have lives, they have jobs, their kids are in schools. The salaries we offer are not the same," he says.

Prosecutor Jordan understands: He says 23 of 90 lawyers did not return after the storm, and it's hard to recruit replacements with $30,000-a-year starting salaries. That pay will increase by $10,000 over the next two years; state lawmakers last week approved raises for assistant district attorneys throughout the state.

Though those jobs are critical, much depends on what happens to the indigent defender program.

Some say it's time to scrap the practice of using part-time lawyers assigned to courts, rather than to cases. "Public defenders see their job as keeping the assembly line moving as opposed to defending the client," says Carroll, the legal aid expert.

Defendants seemed to sense that.

When Dane Ciolono, a Loyola law school professor, ran a clinic in court a few years ago, he says defendants would plead to have his students represent them.

"Think about that," he says. "If you were being wheeled into a hospital, would you be asking for the medical student who's never operated to handle your operation or would you rather (have) an experienced surgeon?"

The recent Justice Department report said the indigent defense program in New Orleans needs 70 full-time lawyers — compared with 42 part-time defenders before Katrina — as well as investigators and other staff.

Judge Johnson would like to see some of the same changes, saying the fault is in how the system is organized, not the defenders themselves. He says they do a very good job for clients who go to trial — though that's only about 15 percent of the cases.

"The rest of the individuals," he says bluntly, "were the ones who got the shaft."

Dwight Doskey, a veteran public defender, also praises his colleagues, saying they were committed to their jobs despite juggling scores of cases, making little money and working in cramped conditions.

But he also says the way the system operated, many people jumped at the chance to plead guilty if they could get probation, rather than wait behind bars for months for a public defender to get around to them.

"Most people in jail," he says, "are concentrating on one thing: When do I get out?"

Doskey says he wants to be optimistic, but he's dubious about long-term change.

"The infusion of money will make people think that everything's fine, everything's copacetic," he says. "But in one to two years, people will say, 'I want to rebuild the port ... I want to build the wetlands.' The justice system will get mired down in the same problems we have now."

But Teissier, a former defender who has worked in the system nearly a generation, is betting this will be a turnaround that will serve a model for the rest of New Orleans.

"I think the justice system is way ahead of the game in trying to make a comeback," he says. "And if a few people can change it, that's just the beginning ... Why can't the whole city change? ... I think this is a defining moment."