For a year and a half after the calamitous Hurricane Katrina, Judge Julian Parker shared a courtroom with another Orleans Parish District Criminal Court judge – or didn’t have one at all. Now he’s dispensing justice again from behind his wine-dark wooden bench, even though some basic courthouse amenities – including the elevator to his chamber – still don’t work. The Christian Science Monitor spent a day in his courtroom to gauge the progress of New Orleans’ criminal justice system. On his docket today: 13 drug charges, six felony assaults, two murders, and a dozen other offenses ranging from car theft to burglary, not to mention his homilies about life and the law.
“You need to get back into school and get into sports,” he tells a 17-year-old charged with possession of marijuana, who has spent two months in lockup because his family couldn’t raise $250 bail. “You look like you would make a good second baseman.” He releases the teenager with a future date for a hearing. In fact, of nearly 30 cases on the judge’s docket this day only a handful will be concluded. The rest are continued. While the wheels of justice turn slowly in all courthouses, perhaps no part of New Orleans civil government has struggled more since hurricane Katrina than its criminal-justice system. Indeed, persistent crime – and the related flow of criminal cases through the court system – are often cited as symbols of how far New Orleans still has to go to rebound from the country’s costliest natural disaster.