August 1, 2007

Criminal justice collapse portends future crises

Do you remember the stories coming out of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, about prisoners being held in the flooded county jail with no access to judges or attorneys?

That was just the beginning. Katrina literally washed away the criminal justice system in New Orleans. With no courts or prosecutors and only a handful of defense attorneys remaining, thousands of prisoners were shipped out to state prisons, where they languished for months. Many were in custody for minor offenses such as not paying traffic tickets. Most, not surprisingly, were indigent minorities. They were lost in the system, doing what came to be known as "Katrina time."

Then came mass detentions of looters and other law-breakers. By the time the flood waters receded, the backlog of cases awaiting trial was in the thousands. And it was many months before even a single jury trial took place.

New Orleans is now the uncontested murder capital of the country. And with the criminal justice system still reeling, the district attorney's office came under sharp fire last month for dropping murder charges against a man accused of massacring five teenagers.

The collapse of the criminal justice system and the denial of Constitutional rights to indigent citizens is catalogued in a Duke Law Journal article now available online. After describing the scope of the disaster, the article makes recommendations for safeguarding the provision of criminal justice during future crises.

The story about the quintuple-murder suspect is featured in the July 31 issue of the L.A. Times. (You need an online subscription to read it, but the subscription is free.)

photo credit: Pratt, "Katrina damage" (Creative Commons license)