Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Locked in limbo

My column this week discusses the continued plight of prisoners displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Human Rights Watch press release from October 14 documenting the issue here. The testimony, compiled by HRW, of several evacuated prisoners here. Link to column here, but the Shreveport Times website is slow this morning, so full text of column below:

Emily Metzgar Locked in limbo It’s been more than seven weeks since Hurricane Katrina threw the state’s legal system into turmoil. Those who were behind bars in affected areas now find themselves trapped in a system that seems to have ceased functioning altogether. The American legal system works because it’s predictable. And the system’s legitimacy stems in part from that predictability. Detained for an offense, you are informed of your first scheduled appearance before a judge. From there, dates for resolution of the issue – whether it’s a failed drug test, a missed child support payment, a robbery, or a violent assault – are set. Bondsmen can arrange for your pretrial release, if appropriate, and attorneys ensure your file doesn’t fall through the cracks. You know when and where your case will be heard and you’re guaranteed a fair trial with unspoiled evidence and a lawyer familiar with your case. There’s a clerk’s office to receive and disseminate case-related materials. The process ensures that you, the accused, are kept abreast of the status of your situation and, if you are detained behind bars until the court date, that you are housed in appropriate conditions. And, although it’s impossible to predict the exact decision of the judge in a given case or the proclivities of an empanelled jury, you have the right to expect that, thanks to the constitutionally-mandated protections of due process, your case will be handled in a timely fashion and that the time you serve will be appropriate to the offense committed. Some unpredictability in the state’s legal system is understandable given the magnitude of the disaster that prompted the problems. But for 8500 prisoners relocated due to Hurricane Katrina, predictability disappeared in August and hasn’t been seen since. Although approximately 700 of those prisoners have been released, for the thousands who remain in custody, now detained in 26 different judicial districts, the legal process has become an unpredictable mess. Administrative offices are shut down and courts haven’t been called to order, leaving the still-incarcerated prisoners and their families locked in limbo. Hope that the situation can be resolved quickly is fading. There was hope that order might soon be restored thanks to a request filed with the Louisiana Supreme Court asking that a single judge (or, alternatively, six different judges) be designated to hear the cases of prisoners from the six evacuated parishes. But the Court denied that request in a 4-3 decision last week, leaving attorneys advocating on behalf of these forgotten prisoners with little hope that a resolution to this judicial crisis will come anytime soon. The result is that many prisoners have already spent more time behind bars than would have been required if found guilty of the offense for which they were originally detained. The situation, as observed by a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, “makes a mockery of due process.” Family members seeking information about offenders and detainees moved from areas affected by Katrina can call the Department of Corrections hotline at 225-342-3998 or 225-342-5935.