New Orleans unveils steps to fix criminal justice woes

For a start, city is borrowing prosecutors and public defenders


NEW ORLEANS -- After months of chaos in the criminal justice system here, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced the first steps yesterday to replace the city's missing prosecutors, public defenders and police officers, along with its ruined courtrooms.

A neighboring parish is lending prosecutors to New Orleans to help its overburdened district attorney's office deal with a significant backlog of cases, Nagin said. Pro bono assistance for poor defendants is on the way from the state's bar association, which is also paying for a new system to coordinate and track cases. Courtrooms and jail cells are being rebuilt and brought into service.

And, Nagin said, the city has established a system for contacting and issuing subpoenas to New Orleans police officers who have been scattered across the country since Hurricane Katrina. The displaced officers are needed to testify in scores of criminal cases, which have not been able to proceed for a lack of witnesses.

The limited progress report came as Nagin and other municipal officials find themselves under increasing pressure from agitated residents, local judges and national legal experts decrying the city's broken legal system.

Just last week, judges in New Orleans ruled that the mechanism to pay for the indigent defender system was unconstitutional, and they sent an emergency request for money to the Justice Department. Louisiana, alone among the states, relies mainly on local court fees - mostly surcharges on traffic tickets - to finance its public defenders, and that system is basically broke.

One of those judges, Arthur L. Hunter, has threatened to begin releasing hundreds of defendants who have not had access to lawyers back onto the streets as of Aug. 29, the date Hurricane Katrina made landfall last year.

"If we are still part of the United States and if the Constitution still means something," Hunter wrote in an order last month, "then why is the criminal justice system 11 months after Hurricane Katrina still in shambles?"

With crime rising again and the legal system perceived as an ineffective deterrent, many in the city have said that New Orleans cannot recover without immediate change.

"A city that's perceived as unsafe will not recover," according to an editorial in The Times-Picayune yesterday, "whether the threat is levees that can't hold back floods or a justice system that can't keep criminals at bay."

At the morning news conference, Nagin said the city "recognized the need for an immediate effort" and promised that officials "will not surrender one more inch of our city to the criminals."

He and others stopped short, however, of saying that any of these changes would accomplish an immediate reduction in the rate of serious crime, stressing that the city is just beginning to tackle what is an enormous issue.

"The people of New Orleans don't need pie-in-the-sky rhetoric," said Richard Ieyoub, the coordinator of the mayor's Criminal Justice Committee and a former state attorney general. He paraphrased Winston Churchill in saying that the new strategies were simply "the end of the beginning."

Ieyoub and others acknowledged that there was much work to be done in re-establishing an effective system that could inspire respect from the people of New Orleans. Even before the storm, the city had one of the least effective criminal justice systems in the country, and it frequently led the nation in the number of murders.

So far this year - even with a much-reduced population - there have been 83 killings, some of them high-profile multiple homicides. Since the storm, however, there has been only one murder trial, and that was for a pre-hurricane killing.

Over the weekend, Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana asked the Justice Department to send extra resources to the New Orleans metropolitan area to help address mounting crime.

"There is also emerging evidence that gangs are aware of the criminal justice system's difficulties, and they intend to maximize their window of opportunity," Landrieu said in a statement. "What is called for is a sustained and unprecedented effort to destroy this violent criminal element before it takes root and spreads."

After a rash of violence early in the summer, the city asked the state to send National Guard troops and state police to help the local police through September. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco recently extended the amount of time the troops will stay in the city. She has not set an exit date.

Many in the city remain concerned about lasting, long-term repair to the criminal justice system, and there was criticism yesterday that the mayor's new procedures are simply temporary measures that will not fix the root causes of dysfunction.

"It's not simply a case of volunteers coming in and dealing with the backlog of cases," said David Carroll, the director of research and evaluations at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington. "Katrina was not the cause of the indigent defender crisis. It was a catalyst that accelerated the long-standing deficiencies."

But, Carroll added of the city's new plans: "It certainly is a step in the right direction after months and months of inaction."

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