New Orleans Legal System Broke Down

When the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina washed through New Orleans, they not only wiped out entire residential neighborhoods, they tore through the city's courthouse and the Orleans Parish Prison, home to more than 6,500 inmates. The displaced prisoners—60 percent of whom were being held on minor infractions like failure to pay traffic fines or public drunkenness—were sent to jails or prisons as far away as Florida.

Without a system in place to track their cases, and without the resources to hire lawyers, many inmates were left to languish in jail for months. Public defenders, already overworked and underpaid, were also displaced by the storm, and many of them were forced to relocate. All but four of the city's public defenders were laid off because the program’s source of revenue—traffic tickets—no longer existed.

The system was in such a state of disarray that judges said the court's backlog couldn’t move forward until the Orleans Indigent Defender Program was overhauled, and in mid-April a nine-member board was appointed to oversee the changes. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo asked Denny LeBoeuf, a New Orleans lawyer who chairs the board, for a progress report. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When Katrina hit New Orleans, what happened to the inmates at Orleans Parish Prison?

Denny LeBoeuf: The evacuation of inmates was an absolute horror show. There was nothing organized to get them out. As the flood came up, many deputy sheriffs left their posts. Many were not able to get from their own homes that were flooded to the jails to help. Inmates went all over the state to various jails and prisons for temporary custody, and some went out of state to Texas and Florida. The ability to keep track of them was lost. Hundreds ended up in an open-air football field at one of the main prisons where they were not given shelter from weather for three days. Corrections staff were throwing sandwiches and bottles over the top of a chain-link fence. The guys who were tough enough and fast enough got water. We know there were beatings. We know there were rapes. They put guys in the same pen who had testified against [one] another. It’s really unimaginable what happened here.

How long were the prisoners held outside of New Orleans?

They all spent months before they were brought into court and saw a lawyer. Some—probably over a thousand—are still being held. I can't give you a definitive figure because there were no records of where people went. And there never were records because the public defenders never had a system for keeping case files. It's really awful to say [that], but that's the truth.

It's hard to believe Americans were held for months without a hearing or access to a lawyer.

There are some very sad stories out of the flood. One woman was told by police to go ahead and take a post-office van and then she was arrested for taking the van and imprisoned for weeks. One guy was arrested on Aug. 27 for reading tarot cards [in a public park where a city ordinance forbid it] and he spent months [in incarceration]. Lots of people were released who could only have been sentenced to six months if they were convicted and did [about] twice that amount of time. And they were never convicted.

Was court even in session after the storm?

No, everything was under water. The courts were closed. They reopened offsite for awhile, but the first jury trial in New Orleans did not happen until June 2006, 10 months later. In order to have a court case, you have to have a physical building, a judge, lawyers for both sides, a functioning clerk’s office. That’s the minimum. The system does not work if one of the parts is missing. Until very recently, the public defenders’ office was not operating, so there were no defense lawyers.

So where was the public defenders’ office?

The public defenders’ office, already understaffed with 48 lawyers, at one point went down to four lawyers. We weren’t allowed to return to our city for five weeks. We weren’t allowed to live here. Some public defenders lost their homes, some lost family members who drowned or died in car accidents or stress-related deaths. There isn’t anyone who lived and worked in New Orleans who didn’t have their entire lives turned upside down, at a minimum.

Was funding an issue?

[The New Orleans] public defenders’ office [was] funded by traffic tickets. And when there were no cars, well, what were they going to do, give tickets to boats? It’s an absolutely irrational way to fund something that’s a core government obligation. Katrina exposed and worsened a situation that was already dangerously out of balance.

How are things now?

They’re much better. With painstaking effort, individual lawyers and board members have been finding out where these incarcerated individuals ended up and trying to get their cases heard, and trying to release people who should have been released months earlier. And the Tulane University Law School clinic has done amazing work. Their clinic teachers virtually worked around the clock to find inmates. The Katrina backlog of over 6,000 incarcerated people in Orleans Parish is now down into the hundreds.

Was there a turning point? What lead to the formation of your reform committee?

Quite honestly, the recognition by the whole court that you can’t bring the courts back from the flood without a good public defenders’ office. That came from the judges. And their appointment of the board was a significant step ... The new board has begun instituting a series of reforms that we think will produce a better public defenders’ office than existed before the storm. We’re almost back to pre-Katrina strength with 35 lawyers--which is half as many as we need. We also rented a building with offices and we’ve won grants, which we are using to improve salaries.