- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — State prosecutors from outside the area have been brought into New Orleans to help clear a huge backlog of cases awaiting action, a special committee working on the city’s deeply troubled criminal justice system said yesterday.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, appointed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, also is pushing for more private lawyers to work as public defenders for poor defendants, perhaps helping to stop the threatened release of many defendants whose trials have been delayed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Officials said prosecutors from neighboring Jefferson Parish are helping the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office screen arrests for possible prosecutions. Assistance from other parishes is being sought.

On July 28, Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter said he will begin on Aug. 29 releasing defendants whose trials have been delayed unless officials act swiftly to fix the public defender’s office.

Court officials said Judge Hunter’s ruling could affect up to 6,000 defendants, though the state is planning to appeal the ruling.

The Orleans Parish indigent defender program had 70 lawyers before Katrina, but officials now say it has fewer than 30. Almost three-quarters of the Orleans Parish public defender program is paid for by traffic fines and fees, which dropped drastically after the storm. So far, about 50 new lawyers have shown an interest in the work.

Richard Ieyoub, a former state attorney general and head of Mr. Nagin’s criminal justice committee, added that repairs will be finished by Oct. 1 on the main jail and that other jails and courts will be coming on line in the next few months.

Finding former police officers who were scattered by the storm to testify in criminal cases has been another missing piece of the puzzle, Mr. Ieyoub said.

But, he said, that has been corrected by the creation of a centralized subpoena system based on a database with current addresses of police personnel.

These new measures will greatly improve the system, Mr. Ieyoub said.

“It’s going to mean that individuals that commit crimes and are arrested will move swiftly and effectively through the system,” Mr. Ieyoub said.

Law-enforcement officials have been under pressure to stop a rise in violent crime. Also, the backlog in cases has left many victims frustrated that they may never see their cases come to court.

Mr. Ieyoub said yesterday’s announcements made it clear the right steps are being taken.

“Everything I have said today answers that effectively,” Mr. Ieyoub said. “New subpoena system; new [assistant district attorneys] to help with the screening to move the backlog; facilities being completed so that we can have more courtroom space. All of that is exactly what was called for.”

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