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New Orleans judge says criminal trials to resume next week

[JURIST] Orleans Parish Criminal District Court [official website] Chief Judge Calvin Johnson has said that the city will resume holding criminal trials next week as the New Orleans court system continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina [JURIST news archive]. As many as 6,000 suspects have been in jail for months awaiting trial; many of the suspects continue to wait for court appointed attorneys to represent them, even months after their arrest. According to a report [LA Times report] from the US Justice Department, the Orleans County Public Defender's Office [official backgrounder] needs 70 lawyers and more than $8 million in addition to the $2.8 million it is scheduled to receive from the federal government on May 31. Thirty-one of the office's 39 public defenders have been laid off since Hurricane Katrina.

Johnson's colleague, Judge Arthur Hunter, has said that believes that New Orleans will have to release some of the suspects if the over-burdened public defender's office does not receive adequate financing, calling the current financing system unconstitutional because it relies heavily on surcharges from traffic tickets, which have largely been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, and forces poor people to pay for the system. Judge Hunter has suspended prosecutions [JURIST report] in most cases involving public defenders and has even granted a petition to free a prisoner facing serious charges because the suspect lacked counsel. Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti, Jr. [official website] launched a probe [JURIST report] in February into the dire finances of the state's indigent defense system. USA Today has more. The New York Times has additional coverage.

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