Judge from New Orleans recently said he was ready to release criminal suspects from jail because of poor legal representation.
Hurricane Katrina left the city's criminal justice system in disarray, and the dramatically lower population after the flood meant a main source of money for the indigent defender's office -mostly traffic court fines - iappeared.
"I'm up to an additional 40 people since March 26 who don't have lawyers, period," Judge Arthur Hunter said Tuesday. "It's not inadequate representation in these cases, it's no representation."
The defendants mostly are charged with drug-related crimes.
Hunter ordered 42 people freed last month but delayed implementation of the order until a hearing that began Wednesday. He also acknowledged that a stay already in place by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals would block the actual release of any prisoners.
Powell Miller, the public defender assigned to Hunter's court, said he has more than 160 defendants to represent and could not give adequate representation to the 42 defendants in question.
The assistant district attorney, David Pipes, argued that prosecution should go forward, with the judge appointing private attorneys for the defendants.
A U.S. Justice Department study has said Orleans Parish alone needs $7 million (5.2 million EUR) to $10 million (7.4 million EUR) a year to adequately fund indigent defense.
Last year, Governor Kathleen Blanco persuaded lawmakers to double state funding for indigent defense statewide, to $20 million (14.7 million EUR) a year. One state representative said he expects the Legislature to approve an additional $7 million (5.2 million EUR) for indigent defense this year.
The Orleans Parish District Attorney's office has said it would likely appeal any ruling by Hunter that the defendants be released.