Two New Orleans criminal court judges have launched investigations of the besieged city’s crumbling criminal justice system, the Los Angeles Times reports. The probes could lead to major changes in how poor defendants are represented. That system, on the verge of collapse for years, has been further imperiled by Hurricane Katrina. So few public defenders are available for more than 4,000 cases that defense for the indigent is almost nonexistent. The office has no investigators. That disarray has caused Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter to summon key players in the system to a hearing tomorrow.
The chief judge of the court, Calvin Johnson, also has started an investigation, asking Tulane and Loyola law professors to assist him. The judges’ moves come after decades of reports describing Louisiana’s system of indigent representation as one of the nation’s worst. Several court decisions, including one by the Louisiana Supreme Court last year, have lambasted the system, but those rulings have not generated meaningful reforms. Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Catherine D. Kimball, who has been spearheading efforts to get the state’s court system back to normal, expects Louisiana to receive at least $60 million in federal aid from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. She expects little of that to go to indigent defense, with “the lion’s share” earmarked for law enforcement agencies to defray hurricane costs.