New Orleans public defenders told a federal judge Thursday that some 250 inmates have been denied their constitutional right to counsel since Sheriff Marlin Gusman abruptly transferred them last week to jails in northeastern Louisiana.
Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Parish’s chief public defender, asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to grant a motion by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration that would forbid the sheriff from housing city inmates in other parishes without first removing hundreds of state prisoners from the local jail.
Africk is overseeing a federal consent decree requiring a series of sweeping reforms at the jail.
Gusman has said he moved the pretrial inmates to jails in Franklin and East Carroll parishes because they would not fit inside the new 1,438-bed jail he opened this week.
He has rejected repeated requests by the Landrieu administration — which pays for the care of local inmates — to return several hundred state prisoners to the Department of Corrections, pointing to a regional re-entry program he runs that he insists has reduced recidivism rates.
But as a long-running legal battle plays out between City Hall and the Sheriff’s Office over whether New Orleans should build an additional new jail, Bunton urged Africk to consider the immediate predicament created by the fact that scores of his clients are being housed several hours away from their attorneys. He said about 73 percent of the inmates moved are represented by the Orleans Public Defenders Office.
Given his office’s limited resources — a well-publicized budget crisis has caused mandatory furloughs — Bunton said his staff “cannot physically visit their clients in East Carroll or Franklin Parish and also make daily scheduled court appearances during the week.”
As it is, “OPD attorneys are struggling to stay afloat and provide competent representation to their pretrial, detained clients housed in-parish; for clients housed a four-hour drive away, that task is impossible,” Bunton wrote in a court filing. “Even visiting on weekends is all but impossible because most attorneys already work on the weekend to catch up on the many uncompleted tasks from during the week.”
In the week since the inmates were moved, Bunton added, several inmates have missed scheduled court dates, and some haven’t even met their recently appointed defense attorneys for the first time.
“Attorneys also cannot communicate with their clients over the phone because those calls are recorded, nonconfidential calls that are exempted from attorney-client privilege,” he wrote.
Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and the MacArthur Justice Center, which represent New Orleans inmates in a landmark class-action lawsuit, also filed court papers Thursday saying Gusman’s decision to move inmates upstate will “wreak havoc on the criminal justice system.”
The move, they wrote, “will come at the expense of potentially months of added incarceration to hundreds of people.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys also raised concerns that the jails in Franklin and East Carroll parishes do not use a classification system employed in New Orleans to separate certain inmates from each other. Many of the transferred inmates are charged with violent offenses, including murder.
“Detainees from various tiers in Old Parish Prison are now living together on one dorm in East Carroll,” the attorneys wrote.
Lawyers for Gusman responded late Thursday that the city’s request is moot because the inmates already have been relocated. “The sheriff has the sole authority to determine where to place inmates within those facilities under his control as security and internal order of the institution may dictate,” they wrote in court filings.
It’s not clear when Africk will rule on the city’s motion.
Earlier this week, he ordered Gusman to appear in his chambers next week to discuss problems of getting inmates to court appearances on time following the shift to the new jail.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.