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New Orleans judge will start releasing prisoners if trials put off much longer

[JURIST] A frustrated New Orleans Parish criminal court [official website] judge said Friday in an emergency order that he will start releasing prisoners on August 29 if their cases do not go to trial by then. Judge Arthur Hunter asked, "If we are still part of the United States and if the Constitution still means something, then why is the criminal justice system 11 months after Hurricane Katrina still in shambles?"

Hunter said with a backlog of some 6000 cases the New Orleans criminal justice system was still in a "pathetic and shameful state of affairs" almost a year after the devastating 2005 storm [JURIST news archive] that broke through levees and flooded the city. "The Constitution guarantees certain rights," he declared. "Facts, reports and studies have concluded constitutional rights are being violated." A public defender shortage exacerbated by a state funding shortfall has meant that a significant number of poor defendants are stuck in jail without representation. Earlier this month, Hunter subpoenaed Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco [Times-Picayune report] to appear before him to discuss the situation, but she declined to appear. A court spokesperson added that charges against any prisoners released would not be dropped and that the order would only affect cases before Hunter. Reuters has more. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has local coverage. ABC26 News in New Orleans offers a local video report.

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