Thursday, September 17, 2015

Opening Week

No, this is not about the Saints season opener. (I'll get to it. Really.) It also happens to be Opening Week at the shiny new Orleans Parish Prison. It was a big draw. They're packing them in over there.
The first two busloads of inmates passed through the giant metal doors of Orleans Parish's new jail facility Monday (Sept. 14), in what Sheriff Marlin Gusman called "the end of an era."

"This has been a long time coming," Gusman told reporters a few minutes before the yellow school buses and deputy SUVs pulled up to the new 1,438-bed, $145 million jail building dubbed "Phase II."
It's September in New Orleans so it may be difficult to distinguish this scene from the one that happens every fall where loads of school buses deliver young people to their designated institution of draconian spirit-crushing discipline. The secret to telling prison from school, though, is the schools are more strict about contraband.

Even with the new school opening, Principal Gusman is under scrutiny again regarding his selective admissions policy.
The latest disagreement came over the shipment of some local prisoners to facilities in north Louisiana by Gusman. The city said the move sent some local prisoners who had court dates and needed to meet with lawyers about four hours away. Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, on the Eyewitness Morning News, suggested Gusman send more of the state inmates being housed here to north Louisiana.

Gusman countered by saying that the group of prisoners moved out included some state prisoners, but that those who remained were prisoners participating in a re-entry program that required them to meet with local counselors.

“The old way of doing it was letting them out at some state facility in the middle of nowhere and giving them a bus ticket and saying, ‘we hope you don’t come back,’” said Gusman.

Kopplin said the re-entry program could easily be moved to the facilities up north and that continuing to prioritize some state prisoners over local prisoners causes local taxpayers to pick up the tab, which he said was about $30 per day, per prisoner over what the city already pays to run the jail.

“We have plenty of room in the sheriff’s facilities for all the people we are responsible for in New Orleans,” said Kopplin. “What we don’t have room for is all of Bobby Jindal’s prisoners in our local jail.”
Turns out there's still plenty of room for Bobby Jindal's prisoners at the Governor's Mansion. But in New Orleans they pretty much have to go in the jail. Even the semblance of "house arrest" is bound to make the mayor's people uncomfortable these days. Kopplin has a point, though. If Gusman is choosing to house state prisoners in the new jail while shipping local inmates awaiting trial to points north, that doesn't make sense for anyone but Gusman.

Beyond just being a worse deal for local taxpayers, it's also a shitty thing to do to pretrial defendants and their lawyers
Further complicating matters has been the sheriff’s indefinite relocation of some 250 pretrial inmates — many of whom face serious felony charges such as murder — to jails several hours away in East Carroll and Franklin parishes.

Gusman has said those inmates would not fit in the new jail. But several defense attorneys said they were blindsided by that move, which will greatly restrict their access to their clients.

“I think it’s a little early to tell how much of this (confusion over court appearances) is due to the shipment upstate and how much of it is due to the transfer to the new facility,” said Colin Reingold, special litigation director for the Orleans Public Defenders Office. “It didn’t sound like (the Sheriff’s Office) had a solidified system for knowing where the inmates were housed in the new facility so they can efficiently bring them to their court appearances.”

Another defense attorney, Kevin Boshea, said he learned over the weekend that Clifford Williams, a client of his scheduled to stand trial Tuesday in a second-degree murder case, had been among the inmates sent several hours away last week. He filed a last-minute motion to postpone Williams’ trial.
Unfortunately, the extra mileage is hardly the worst obstacle the Public Defenders Office is faced with right now.  There's also this thing where the city won't give them any money to operate.
A New Orleans judge Friday (Sept. 11) postponed for more than two months a hearing he called to examine whether poor people charged with crimes in his court are receiving adequate legal representation.

Criminal District Court Arthur Hunter sought Friday's hearing last week, after reading an op-ed piece in The Washington Post written by New Orleans public defender Tina Peng, who wrote about lack of funding for public defenders.

But Hunter postponed a discussion on the matter at the request of Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, who said he's involved in ongoing discussions with the Louisiana Public Defender Board on whether the current funding woes are "an aberration."

Bunton asked that the hearing be reset for November, and Hunter agreed to scheduled it for Nov. 18.
If you hadn't seen the Washington Post article, you might still have heard about this. John Oliver covered it a few weeks ago.
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that "any person ... who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." But as John Oliver explains in his latest Last Week Tonight report, the public defender system has been warped beyond recognition – leading to underfunded departments, pressured guilty pleas and the absurd notion of being billed for a supposedly free attorney. 

Here is that segment.

Oliver mentions an ongoing fundraising campaign for the OPD's office this week. In addition to the crowd-funding effort, which you can donate to at that link, there is a series of public events you might like to attend listed on that site as well.

Of course, we shouldn't have to provide for minimum constitutional standards in our criminal justice system this way.  But that's what it's come to. Anyway there are worse ways to fund a public defender's office.. like, say,  the one we have already.
The public defender's office is partially funded through the collection of traffic tickets in Orleans Parish and is expected to get $300,000 less this year. Bunton said if the deficit is not resolved in the short term, it's going to cost taxpayers in the long term to house people awaiting their day court.

"We are the only state in the entire country that funds district defenders through local fees, local court fees and that system really just doesn't work," Louisiana State Bar Association President Mark Cunningham said.
Setting aside the perverse incentive built into such a system, we're never going to squeeze enough money out of people this way.  We know because we are trying.
A group of people convicted of crimes in Orleans Parish lodged a federal class action lawsuit Thursday claiming that the dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and court staffers routinely violate the law by jailing people for failing to pay fines and fees without giving them a chance to plead poverty.

“The result is an illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit claims the court has authorized illegal arrest warrants for failing to come up with the money without giving defendants “notice of how or when they would be released or when a hearing would be held.”

It claims that the half-dozen named plaintiffs, and others like them, are deprived of a constitutionally mandated hearing over their ability to pay.

The suit describes an “illegal scheme” in which convicts are jailed until they pay their fines and fees or are forced to post a preset $20,000 bond. The suit claims the judges have a conflict of interest in doing so, because the court’s Judicial Expense Fund is filled largely with those moneys.
Oh yeah, the judges depend on this racket for their budget too. Anyway, when I noticed the State Treasurer was in town this week advocating for more aggressive police tactics I thought he was just demagoging our overblown hysteria over street crime in order to impress out of town voters. But, on second thought, maybe he's just offering fiscal advice.   Need more money? Go shake some fools down.

Where has this ever gone wrong?

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