Defending the rights of prisoners in New Orleans

More than one year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the miserable federal response that followed, New Orleans remains devastated in virtually every sector. Judge Arthur Hunter of the city’s criminal court will tell you without reservation that the long-ailing justice system is no exception.

In 2006, Hunter appointed an investigator to determine the ability of the public defender’s office to provide lawyers for the many prisoners arrested before and after the storm and held indefinitely in New Orleans jails. What did he find? The public defender’s office, financed largely by the now economically decimated city, was flat broke. “They fired most of the attorneys and laid off the support staff,” according to the investigator’s report. The result: thousands of prisoners, mostly poor and Black, stuck in a system that could not afford to guarantee their constitutional right to due process under the law. (In New Orleans, a defendant can’t even make a plea without a lawyer.)

For Hunter, a veteran of the bench, the investigator’s report was more than a dismal reminder of the city’s long road to recovery; it was a call to arms. So, in fall 2006, he began suspending prosecutions of defendants for crimes requiring public defenders and, alone among his fellow justices, released prisoners facing charges without access to a lawyer.

Arguing that not only the public defender’s office but also the district attorney, clerk’s and sheriff’s offices must become viable, Hunter is not prepared to wait for the city and state legislature to infuse desperately needed funds.

“I have no idea what the legislature will do in 2007. My duty is to defend constitutional rights. That is my focus.”

But defending those rights has come with a price. Hunter has faced his share of critics. The public defender’s office is working to block the order that released several prisoners in October.

He may be targeted, but it’s a role he seems glad to play:

“Criminal justice is only a microcosm of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region: from housing and education to problems facing our youth and the medical system. If I’m a lightning rod, I would hope that lightning would strike in every facet of life in New Orleans.”

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