updated 2/23/2006 10:34:08 PM ET 2006-02-24T03:34:08

The New Orleans court system may be forced to start releasing an estimated 4,000 prisoners — from potheads to murder suspects — if money isn’t found to run the local public defender’s office, a state judge warned Thursday.

“It behooves the state of Louisiana to resolve this constitutional crisis,” state Judge Arthur Hunter said.

Since Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city Aug. 29, the courts have faced numerous problems, including forced relocation from their damaged courthouse, the loss of lawyers and support personnel, and flooded evidence rooms.

The public defender’s office, which had 42 lawyers, six investigators, six office workers and a $2.2 million annual budget before the storm, is now down to six attorneys, one investigator, one office worker and almost no money. The office receives 75 percent of its funding from traffic court fines, which have been nonexistent since Katrina.

Two of the city’s 12 criminal district court judges have concluded that the public defender’s office can no longer effectively represent impoverished defendants — who make up 90 percent of the roughly 12,000 criminal cases each year. Earlier this month, Hunter halted all trials involving public defenders’ clients in his section of the court.

It won’t be long, Hunter said Thursday, before there are mass requests from defendants seeking speedy trials or hearings justifying their continued imprisonment pending trial.

Those arrested for a felony can be held 60 days before the district attorney decides whether to prosecute. A decision on misdemeanor cases must be made in 45 days.

Spokeswoman Leatrice Dupre said the district attorney’s office has made decisions on all inmates that it has received police reports on. The DA wants to prosecute those inmates, but it’s up to judges to decide when than can happen, she said.

Even before Katrina, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously decided last year that the state failed to adequately fund indigent defense programs. However, the court did not order any action.

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