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A New Orleans judge recently halted all prosecutions in his state trial court of indigents represented by public defenders. Because of a failure to provide timely and effective assistance of counsel, Judge Arthur Hunter also raised the threat of a mass release of pretrial detainees if a solution is not found. It remains to be seen if the 11 other criminal court judges in the parish will follow Hunter’s lead. Parishes in Louisiana are the equivalent of counties. Both Hunter and presiding Judge Calvin Johnson are holding hearings to determine how to provide Orleans Parish indigents with effective assistance of counsel. Another Katrina casualty Long before the levees broke, the entire state was flooded with complaints that it had abrogated its federal and state constitutional mandates to provide indigents with an adequate defense. After Katrina laid waste to New Orleans last August, the condition of indigency defense deteriorated still further, lawyers allege. Parishes bear most of the financial burden of providing indigent defense. Their major funding sources are fines collected from traffic tickets and court fees. That creates widely disparate levels of funding and effectiveness. [NLJ, 11-01-04]. A class action brought by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers challenging that system is pending. Anderson v. Louisiana, No. 2004-005405 (Calcasieu Parish, La., Dist. Ct.). Things were bad before Katrina; now they’re devastating, said David Carroll, director of research and evaluations for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which in 2004 completed a study of indigent defense in the state. After Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Indigent Defender Board laid off 36 of its 42 public defenders They are in the process of filing motions to withdraw from all but the 100 oldest cases in each of the 12 judge’s courts. More than 4,000 cases of indigents are pending. “The state needs to rethink its criminal justice system to reduce the need for criminal defense,” Carroll said. “They need to have alternatives to incarceration-diversionary courts and to decriminalize some behavior.” A 2005 report of the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that 5% of all convictions in New Orleans were for violent crimes and 67% were for simple drug possession, even though surveys usually rank New Orleans within the top 10 of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Last week, by written order, Hunter appointed New Orleans solo practitioner Richard C. Teissier to represent all “indigent persons accused of criminal offenses in Orleans Parish.” That’s so he can help the court determine whether they are receiving effective assistance of counsel. “Right now, [the defenders] don’t even know how many clients they have, let alone where they’re being held,” said Teissier. Hunter subpoenaed top state legislators and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to testify at a hearing in his court on Feb. 23. Months earlier, Johnson appointed the law clinics at Tulane University Law School and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law to serve the the same role in his court that Teissier serves in Hunter’s. The next hearing in Johnson’s court is scheduled for March 3. A spokeswoman for New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan said that the indigent defender program should be adequately funded, but that releasing defendants as a result of lack of funding is an inappropriate remedy.

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