Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city’s failing justice system is attracting violent criminals the way the French Quarter once pulled in tourists, witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.

“Returning drug dealers and violent criminals have chosen to come back to New Orleans … to exploit the highly dysfunctional local criminal justice system, including its notorious ‘revolving door,’ ” testified Jim Letten, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

In more than 3,000 criminal cases last year, charges had to be dismissed and suspects released because indictments were not brought within 60 days, as required by Louisiana law, said witnesses from New Orleans.

And last year there was only one conviction for the 160 homicides committed.

Anthony Cannatella, deputy superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, described how a lack of juvenile detention facilities resulted in the nearly immediate release of a 14-year-old girl who had robbed a tourist at gunpoint.

Committee chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, warned that violent crime has become New Orleans’ “most serious threat to recovery since the storm.”

“Securing convictions has become increasingly difficult with the lack of forensic capabilities, delays in court proceedings and the reluctance of witnesses to come forward where the system cannot protect them from retaliation,” he said.

In the first three months of this year, violent crime is up 107 percent over the same period last year, including 91 homicides, law-enforcement officials testified.

Indeed, witnesses and committee members described a city where crime seems to be one of the few parts of society that is working 22 months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

“The murder rate per capita is now the highest in America, more than 20 percent higher than in any other major city,” said Mr. Leahy.

The New Orleans Police Department is still working out of FEMA trailers, said Mr. Cannatella. More than 800 officers “lost everything” in the storm and about 500 still live in FEMA trailers. Many of its most highly trained veterans were recruited to adjoining parishes where pay and living conditions are better.

“At present, we have only one qualified firearms examiner and one fingerprint examiner left,” said Mr. Cannatella, adding that more than 85 firearms examinations and more than 1,600 narcotics tests are backlogged.

The witnesses appealed to the committee for congressional aid.

“In a nutshell, we need federal funding,” said Judge David Bell of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.

A beefed-up federal law-enforcement force — including more prosecutors and FBI agents — is making a dent in its jurisdiction, said Mr. Letten. Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office charged 358 persons with federal offenses.

But too often, suspects are back on the street within hours after police book them, he said. Witnesses and victims are too often abused in this system, he added.

“We must restore faith in the criminal justice system in Orleans Parish,” agreed Robert Stellingworth, president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a nonprofit community group set up to improve the criminal justice system.

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