Evacuated Prisoners Are Captive to Legal Limbo

Seven weeks after being knocked out by Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana criminal justice system is still struggling to become functional and faces more daunting challenges with the prospect of diminished budgets.

The most immediate challenge, defense lawyers say, is freeing people jailed on misdemeanor charges before the hurricane who have now served well past their sentences.

Some Louisiana Supreme Court justices agree. Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero Jr. said in an interview Saturday that, based on legal motions the court heard last week, he believed at least 41 prisoners evacuated from Orleans Parish Prison were overdue for release. Many are at the maximum-security Elayn Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge.

Justice Bernette J. Johnson said: "I am interested in making sure we don't have anyone locked up one day longer than they should be."

Late last week, the court rejected, 4 to 3, an emergency motion by defense lawyers for a judge to be appointed to conduct hearings on evacuated inmates. The court had announced shortly after the Aug. 29 hurricane that it would be closed until Oct. 25.

Calogero, who voted for the motion, said it was rejected because of procedural problems. "I thought we should ignore the formalities and send a judge" to Hunt, he said, to hear inmates' arguments that they were being held illegally.

Details here from Henry Weinstein of the Los Angeles Times.