Monday, April 10, 2006

Our First Assignment & Court

The Justice Center – Attending Criminal Court – Our First Assignment

The Criminal Court is being held in the US Federal District Court House due to lack of available spacing. However, due to the displacing, they can only utilize two rooms in the court house. In addition, because the defendants are spread about in various districts that are housing them, it is a logistical nightmare in getting them all in the same room which further limits the number of defendants that can be heard. All the while, the number of accused is steadily growing, there is a certain amount of defendants (no one is sure of exactly how much) that were supposed to have hearings before Katrina, many for petty offenses but “fell through the cracks.” That is, they may be incarcerated somewhere, should have been let out months ago, but due to the post Katrina confusion, are being kept incarcerated until their hearing. This is where the organization we are volunteering for comes in. The Justice Center is trying to locate these lost defendants who are languishing in jail serving triple, quadruple sentences or in some cases even more.

The Court Hearings

Alex, Barbara and I stood out like a sore thumb in the courtroom while a large group of the accused was sitting shackled in orange jump suits and chains obviously talking about us amongst themselves. For our first assignment as part of the Justice Center, we were to observe the hearings for the day and take notes of all the information regarding the defendants. We took notes of what the defendants were charged with, their sentences, plea bargains, and how much time they have already spent in jail. I was a little shocked at the level of disorganization that was present in the courthouse. While I understand their displacement from their usual courthouse and that the accused have to be shipped in from different locations, it was hard not to be taken aback by what I saw. A lot of times neither side really knew how much time the defendant had spent in jail, what their prior history was, or other pertinent information. There was a lot of “I think he was” or “I think it was filed on.” One particularly amusing moment arose when the prosecutor was asked what the status of the accused was; he replied “I think he is incarcerated.” The accused was sitting across the room in an orange jump suit in shackles. The judge replied, I know he is incarcerated! Maybe that was some keen lawyering insight that I missed. The first judge whose hearings we sat in on was quite blunt to one indigent defender saying: Since he could not find a public defender, there not being enough resources to obtain one for him, he would have to stay in “limbo” until the public defenders office was up and running or have to find a private attorney. The judge’s admittance was truer than it sounds. There is a large shortage of public defenders exacerbating the back-log of pre-Katrina cases that need to be heard. A lot of the funding that was used to pay for the public defenders has dried up – parking tickets, allocation of city funds, etc.

Judge D

After sitting in on the Judge’s hearings, his law clerk (who happened to go to Pace Law for a period) introduced us and some of the Pace Law students to the judge. He was eager to answer any questions we had and to voice his feelings on the current state of the judicial process. He expressed some frustration regarding the fact that the justice system has been slowed significantly but also expressed optimism that over time things would eventually get back to normal (which may or may not be such a good thing). Some of the problems affecting his courtroom: lots of evidence has been destroyed or damaged due to the floods, their normal criminal courthouse has been flooded and is unusable, and they must share the federal district court house and because of that are limited in the number of defendants that can be heard and cases prosecuted. Following the hurricane, defendants had to be moved from holding place to holding place and were scattered all over the area wherever space could be found. It was interesting to note that the local Greyhound station served as a holding center and courthouse immediately following the disaster. In addition, the number of public defenders shrunk to a level where a number of defendants can not get speedy hearings.

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