Hundreds of prisoners in Louisiana may be released or left in limbo awaiting trial because there is no funding for prosecutions.
Eddie Jordan, Orleans parish district-attorney, whose parish was among the hardest hit by Katrina, has been told his office will get no fourth-quarter funding from the city for operating expenses.
Mr Jordan's office is already struggling to cope with problems that include damaged and waterlogged evidence, missing records and witnesses, defendants who have jumped bond, and destroyed offices and courthouses.
The loss of funding because of the bankruptcy of New Orleans compounded doubts as to whether the DA's office, which is also responsible for monitoring the city's police force, would be able to prosecute many of the 3,000 cases that were on the docket before Katrina hit, Mr Jordan said.
He has laid off more than half of non-legal, non-essential staff, and if he does not receive funding within the next 30 days he will be forced to fire attorneys and crucial support staff, such as investigators.
Without city money for the rest of the year he would be “very close to shutting down altogether”, he said.
“My position is very simple. The police cannot do their jobs without the prosecutors.
“So it's a cruel hoax to suggest that they can go around arresting people, and that they [the police] should be funded, but other components of the system can function without money and that we can have public safety,” said Mr Jordan.
Drowning in debt, legal systems in several parishes hit by the hurricane are facing similar dilemmas over whether they can continue to hold prisoners without a trial, or consider releasing accused thieves, murderers or rapists. Stuart Green, a professor of criminal law and procedure at the Louisiana State University law centre in Baton Rouge, said that, with constitutional restrictions on how long detainees could be held before trial, evensome facing serious felony charges might have to be discharged.
No parish has yet made that extreme decision. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District-Attorney's Association, cautioned that the right to a speedy trial provided for some limited exceptions if therewas just cause due to force majeure, such as Hurricane Katrina.
An emergency session of the Louisiana legislature later this month is to address many of these concerns, but with most courts ordered shut until atleast October 25, many legal experts are voicing fears about prisoners' constitutional and statutory trial rights.
Louisiana's criminal justice system was already under intense scrutiny before Katrina, in part because its public defence system for providing lawyers to poor defendants is among the country's worst. Keith Nordyke, a Baton Rouge defence attorney who was serving as the Katrina disaster relief liaison to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), said the next 60 days would be crucial, and he hoped the result would be some very deep changes in the system.
The NACDL has been working with volunteer defence attorneys, prosecutors and the state's department of corrections to catalogue the identities and criminal histories of the 8,000 prisoners displaced by Katrina to ensure that those due for release are discharged.
Pam LaBorde, communications director for the Louisiana department of corrections, said 160 evacuated prisoners due for release had been freed and a second batch of 350 were being discharged.
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