Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Me and Mr. Jones: A Systems-Based Analysis of a Catastrophic Defense Outcome

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Me and Mr. Jones: A Systems-Based Analysis of a Catastrophic Defense Outcome

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Leo S. Jones spent four months in jail, accused of a probation violation when his probation had long since expired. His incarceration was illegal. It was also preventable.

In this article, I describe the unique data collection project that identified Mr. Jones's case. Then, I analyze the various individual, institutional, and systemic practices that contributed to Mr. Jones's illegal incarceration. I show how an investigation of Mr. Jones's case led to the discovery of widespread latent errors that may have adversely affected innumerable other detainees. I conclude by explaining what this case reveals about how data collection and analysis can improve public defender practice.

II. THE KATRINA-GIDEON INTERVIEW PROJECT

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The Orleans Parish Prison evacuated thousands of pretrial prisoners to jails across the state. In the weeks and months after the storm, New Orleans police arrested thousands more. With the Orleans Parish Prison still closed, these new arrestees joined the languishing Katrina prisoners in remote parish jails and large state prisons. Meanwhile, the Orleans Indigent Defender Board (OIDB) collapsed, leaving thousands of unrepresented "Katrina prisoners" in jails across the state. (1)

By December of 2006, indigent defendants were represented by a newly funded, client-centered public defender's office (Orleans Public Defenders or OPD). Yet, by conservative estimates, hundreds of "Katrina prisoners" had had cases pending since before the storm made landfall. Most had never met with an attorney. Most of their new attorneys lacked basic case information, such as charging documents and police reports. With new arrests occurring every day, OPD was unable to address this backlog of criminal cases.

In response to this constitutional crisis, OPD, the Tulane Criminal Law Clinic (the Clinic), and the Student Hurricane Network (SHN) launched the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project (KGIP), an ambitious defender-assistance project. KGIP's primary goal was to interview the pre-Katrina prisoners and to create case files for their assigned public defenders. Secondarily, KGIP sought to assess the legal needs of post-Katrina arrestees who had spent an extended period in jail without counsel or court appearance.

A. Criminal Justice Stakeholders as Wary "Limited Partners"

KGIP's viability depended upon two key factors that were beyond OPD's control. First, students needed access to defendants. That access depended on the willingness of the jailers--the Sheriff and the Department of Corrections--to allow hundreds of students to enter the jail to conduct dozens of inmate interviews over a four week period. Second, students needed information about the defendants. Since the old public defender's office lacked any practice of creating and keeping case files, OPD and KGIP were unable to assemble even rudimentary facsimiles of files. (2) KGIP lacked the resources to locate and print publicly available docket information. KGIP was unable to pay for police reports ($25 each) and had no access to any discovery that might have been provided before Katrina. Cooperation with the district attorney's office and the local bar would be essential to KGIP's construction of meaningful case files.

However, KGIP's interests were not entirely aligned with those of other criminal justice stakeholders. OPD had a different set of priorities than the district attorney, the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriffs Office (the Sheriff) and the Department of Corrections (DOC). And, as the project's director, I had a particularly challenging relationship with some of these stakeholders. I had been a vocal critic of the district attorney's office and had sued the sheriffs office over its failure to comply with judicial orders for prisoner release. I was on better terms with the Department of Corrections--DOC administrators and staff had been extraordinarily helpful in locating "lost" prisoners and identifying prisoners who were detained past the expiration of their sentences. …

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