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Katrina and the Right to Counsel

With more than 1,000 people sitting in New Orleans jails without access to lawyers, Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. decided he had no choice but to begin releasing defendants and suspending their prosecutions. The story made The New York Times last week and illustrated the post-Katrina plight of criminal defendants.

But the situation is not unique to New Orleans, says Loyola law professor Alexandra Natapoff in an article this week in Slate, Gideon's Silence: Whatever Happened to the Right to Counsel? Alluding to the post-Katrina state of criminal defense, she provides these examples:

"Indigent clients … remain in pretrial detention for up to five or six months without a single contact from an attorney." One woman "was in jail eleven months before a lawyer was appointed," while another person "spent thirteen months in jail without seeing a lawyer or a judge."

But here's the rub: These quotes are from a pre-Katrina American Bar Association report, Gideon's Broken Promise: America's Continuing Quest for Equal Justice, and they describe situations in Montana, Mississippi and Georgia. The situation in New Orleans shines the spotlight on a nationwide phenomenon, Natapoff suggests, the lack of meaningful defense attributable in part to massive caseloads. She writes:

"This is yet another one of those 'Katrina moments' in which we realize that post-Katrina New Orleans is a high-definition example of how this nation routinely treats the poor and people of color. Right after the hurricane, the Brookings Institution issued a report on national poverty saying that, 'Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans' most vulnerable residents and neighborhoods has reinvigorated the dialogue on race and class in America.' Well, today, Judge Hunter re-reinvigorates that dialogue, this time over the right to counsel for those same poor, vulnerable individuals. Just as important, he reminds us all that it shouldn't take a hurricane to uphold the Constitution."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 2, 2006 at 02:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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