Problems continue with NOLA legal system

From theTimes Picayune

Criticizing recent changes to reshape the Orleans Parish Indigent Defender Program, nine Criminal District Court judges Monday ordered the board overseeing the system to hire more attorneys to provide representation to impoverished criminal defendants.

The order states that mismanagement of the office has effectively denied poor defendants their 6th Amendment-guaranteed right to effective legal representation, citing the “policies and practices” recently implemented by the lawyers who took over running the program in late April.

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The new leaders of the indigent defense program said the order is a prime example of judges interfering where they don’t belong, noting that while the local judges appoint the board, they aren’t supposed to tinker with the day-to-day management. Instead, judges need to allow time to see whether the recent changes end up providing better legal representation for people accused of crimes, said LeBoeuf.

“They let that system stand for years and years without a peep,” she said. “I’m pretty suspicious that this is all done for the altruistic benefit of poor people.”

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The exchange is the latest in a string of disagreements in recent months, as the reconfigured indigent defense board has begun to make changes in the program. Several judges have been particularly critical of the decision to make the lawyers with the program work full time instead of maintaining a side-line practice.

Proponents said this would provide needed accountability and ensure that poor defendants get a vigorous defense, noting that the change was advocated in numerous reports over the years critical of the indigent defense system in New Orleans. Critics argued that the sudden switch to full time pushed out a handful of veteran attorneys at a time when they were needed.

The simmering tensions have boiled over in the aftermath of the flood, which brought the justice system to its knees and laid bare long-standing problems with indigent defense in New Orleans. After the storm, thousands of jailed pretrial inmates were scattered to prisons across the state. Most waited for months for any contact with a lawyer.

The indigent defense office was crippled by a lack of financing, as the agency is largely dependent on court fees that dried up when daily operation of the court system ceased. Most of the work tracking down defendants was done by local law clinics.

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