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Law Students Report on Poor Legal Representation in New Orleans

April 18, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

CHICAGO --- Northwestern University School of Law students will present findings of their report “Access Denied: Pre-Katrina Practices in Post-Katrina Magistrate and Municipal Courts” from noon to 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, at the School of Law, Room 150, Arthur Rubloff Building, 357 E. Chicago Ave. 

“New Orleans Magistrate Court judges kept stressing the need for flexibility during the 10 days that 11 Northwestern law students observed court proceedings and conducted interviews of detainees,” said Cathryn Crawford, assistant clinical professor at the School of Law.

“But the flexibility that was urged because of post-Katrina conditions seemed mostly to be a one-way street,” she said. “For the most part the public defender was either absent from the hearings or failed to participate in the individual cases.”

Northwestern students first presented the results of their interviews to Stephen Singer, assistant clinical professor at Loyola Law School, New Orleans, who with his students successfully obtained the release of several of the detainees. 

“The work of the Northwestern law students has had a direct impact on people who had been essentially denied assistance of counsel, and the report sheds light on a criminal justice system that is crying out for reform,” said Singer.

The students’ trip to New Orleans over spring break was the culmination of a semester-long class taught by Crawford that focused on the social and legal consequences of Hurricane Katrina. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson gave the students permission to observe the court and conduct the interviews.

People alleged to have committed relatively minor offenses were given bond hearings that usually lasted less than a minute, in most cases without any meaningful representation, according to the report.

“Consequently, a detainee who relies on the Orleans Indigent Defender Program may end up spending at least 45 days in jail while the state decides whether it is going to formally charge him or her,” said Katie Shelton, a second-year Northwestern law student who contributed to the report and study.

Except in rare cases, bond decisions were based exclusively on the nature of the charges and the person’s criminal history, with no attempt to determine individual circumstances, she said. And an overwhelming majority of the cases observed were minor drug possession or public intoxication cases, with bonds usually set at $500 or $1,000.

The report shows that the indigent defense system in New Orleans remains understaffed and under-funded, according to Jelpi Picou, Jr., executive director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans. “Given this historical and ongoing crisis, the state is under a constitutional obligation to do better,” he said.

The trip was funded by Northwestern University School of Law and its Student Bar Association, as well as by individual donations and support from the law firms of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP. 

Topics: Research