- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A volunteer group that began monitoring courtrooms in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina said Monday that the sheriff has agreed to make sure media and members of the public have access to magistrate court on nights and weekends.

Court Watch NOLA executive director Simone Levine said at a news conference that there have been complaints by reporters and members of the public that access to magistrate court - where criminal suspects generally make their first court appearance before a judge or appointed commissioners - is not always granted on nights and weekends.

Levine said the sheriff’s office was receptive to calls for consistent after-hours access. The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Levine and the organization’s program coordinator, Veronica Lam, also discussed plans for Court Watch NOLA to include monitoring of magistrate court. The organization had been concentrating on other sections of court where cases are assigned once formal charges are filed.

Monitors rate judges and prosecutors on a variety of factors including preparedness for cases, the number of continuances granted, respect for defendants and crime victims, and the number of “sidebar” bench conferences held out of earshot of courtroom observers.

In magistrate court, volunteers will also keep track of such details as how many defendants are held without bond, the reasons prosecutors give when they ask for denial of bond, whether a defendant has an attorney and whether the defendant has a chance to speak with that attorney prior to the hearing.

Court Watch NOLA was founded in 2007 amid numerous calls for reforms of local government institutions after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The organization’s stated purpose is to bring greater efficiency and transparency to New Orleans courts.

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