On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept across southern Louisiana, hitting St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Orleans Parish, which comprise the entirety of the jurisdictions within Louisiana's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. The hurricane left almost complete devastation of civil infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and the justice system. The storm also bared massive pre-existing deficencies, inter alia, poverty, policing, and the justice system, where a great number of the detainees ultimately evacuated from the region were indigent, and held on minor offenses without contact or support from their public defender.
When the levees in New Orleans broke on August 30, 2005, there were approximately seven thousand men and women awaiting trial in New Orleans who were too poor to afford a defense attorney. Almost five thousand of these pre-trial detainees were locked up in Orleans Parish Prison when the city flooded, and were evacuated to prisons and jails throughout Louisiana. Most of these indigent defendants, along with new post-katrina arrestees, remain locked up with no access to counsel.
At the invitation of and in partnership with Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a citizens group working to reform New Orleans' criminal justice system, SCHR conducted a preliminary investigation into the crisis involving the evacuated prisoners, meeting over a hundred detainees, talking to scores of attorneys, and reviewing thousands of pages of documentation. What SCHR discovered was not just that none of the indigent detainees had seen a lwyers since Katrina--within the last six months--but that the vast majority of the defendants interviewed had not seen a public defender outside of Court in the six months prior to Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, SCHR discovered that the agency tasked with representing these detainees did not know whom it now ostensibly represents.
More than six months after Katrina, a majority of these men and women remain behind bars, where they have languished an average of over a year without any communication with a defense attorney. There is an urgent need to immediately staff and mobilize an indigent defense system that can effectively and ethically represent the thousands of individuals who are currently facing their criminal charges without assistance of counsel.