New Orleans’ beleaguered court system may release 4,000 low-income defendants – most of them accused of felonies – because the state and local governments lack funds to hire public defenders, USA Today reports. Two of the 12 judges in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have raised the prospect of mass releases by suspending prosecutions in their courts. Chief Judge Calvin Johnson and Judge Arthur Hunter concluded that the public defenders’ office – which had its staff and funding slashed by Hurricane Katrina – no longer has enough lawyers or staff to effectively represent the rising number of poor defendants awaiting trial.
Hunter subpoenaed Louisiana state Senate President Donald Hines, House Speaker Joe Salter and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to testify at a Feb. 23 hearing about laws that require the state to make sure defenders’ offices are funded adequately. Louisiana is the only state that relies almost exclusively on local traffic-ticket revenue and parking fines – rather than a major contribution from the state – to finance its low-income residents’ constitutionally protected right to a lawyer. Even before Katrina all, the state’s public-defender systems were targeted in class-action lawsuits that have alleged that defendants have been held in jail for years pending trial. In New Orleans, nearly 80 percent of criminal defendants typically are represented by public defenders.