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New Orleans judges: funds shortfall may force mass release of indigent defendants

[JURIST] Just one month after New Orleans courts began preparations to resume trials [JURIST report], two New Orleans judges said that criminal courts may have to release as many as 4,000 indigent defendants, many of whom stand accused of felonies, due to lack of funding and resources to hire public defenders. Judges Calvin Johnson and Arthur Hunter of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court [official website] were the first to suspend prosecutions [AP report] in their courts, but they expect the other 10 judges to follow suit. On Friday, Hunter subpoenaed Louisiana Senate President Donald Hines [official website], Louisiana House Speaker Joe Salter [official website], and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin [official website] to testify at a February 23 hearing on the inadequacy of public defender funding.

Louisiana is unique, as it relies almost exclusively on local traffic tickets and parking fines to generate the revenue for the defender's office. As a result of the Hurricane Katrina disaster [JURIST news archive], the annual budget has been dropped from $2.5 million to $500,000. Public defenders represent close to 80 percent of criminal defendants in New Orleans. USA Today has more.

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