Video: New Orleans Justice

updated 2/28/2006 1:53:37 PM ET 2006-02-28T18:53:37

Hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists enjoying the first post Katrina Mardi Gras.  The celebration reaches its climax tomorrow.  Less than six months ago 80 percent of this city was under water.  Now at the time, a number of arrests were made in the city.  There was even a makeshift jail set up at a bus station that we visited while we were down there. 

But now, six months later, the criminal justice system is still struggling to bounce back with limited resources and staffers and a staggering number of inmates are awaiting trial.  Some reports say that there aren‘t enough public defenders in the county to provide everyone with a lawyer.  And one judge warned the courts would soon be forced to release inmates arrested for anything from drugs to murder and dismiss the charges unless they can be brought to trial soon. 

Dan Abrams was joined by the man in charge of prosecuting all of those arrested, New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan. 

DAN ABRAMS, HOST 'ABRAMS REPORT': What do you make of this judge‘s comment that  a lot of serious potential criminals could be released? 

EDDIE JORDAN, NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT ATTORNEY:   Well, I don‘t think it‘s something that‘s going to happen and obviously it‘s something that we as prosecutors are going to vigorously fight.  Obviously it‘s not the appropriate remedy if we have a problem with the indigent defender program.  The proper thing to do would be to fund the indigent defender program appropriately. 

ABRAMS:  Is the problem that the money for that program used to come from parking tickets and bottom line is there really aren‘t any parking tickets now?

JORDAN:  I think that‘s a big part of the problem.  The way that the funding system is structured for the indigent defender program in Orleans Parish is such that the program to my understanding does not have sufficient funds to pay for non-attorney staff members as well as attorneys. 

ABRAMS:  So this judge is warning, saying unless we get these people to trial, these people are going to get released.  You‘re saying it‘s not going to happen? 

JORDAN:  I‘m saying that there is no precedent for that kind of remedy to this particular problem, and I think that it would be a solution that would not be supported by the law or the facts of this particular set of circumstances. 

ABRAMS:  Now, we‘re hearing reports that there are some people who are behind bars, who are basically begging to plead guilty so that they can just have served—time served.  Meaning, they‘ve been sitting in jails or prisons, and they are claiming they would like to plead guilty so they can just get out with time served.  Is that true? 

JORDAN:  I don‘t think that that‘s true.  I think that the people who have indicated that they‘re interested in pleading guilty have pled guilty for the most part.  Now there are some individuals who would like to plead guilty to a reduced charge, and that is not something that we are willing to allow as prosecutors. 

ABRAMS:  Have you been able to figure out a way to deal with people who were arrested for petty crimes, let‘s say right before Katrina hit, public intoxication, something like that, such that they have not been sitting in prisons for the last six months? 

JORDAN:  We have sorted out all of those individuals charged with minor offenses.  Those individuals have largely—in fact, I think almost all of them have been released since the storm.  So that took a while to take place, but it has happened and we have identified all of the defendants charged with minor offenses, who would have served their prison terms if in fact they had pled guilty. 

ABRAMS:  Have you been able to figure out how to deal with all the lost documents?  I mean you and I have talked about this a number of times that so many of the documents that are so important for the legal system were under water. 

JORDAN:  That‘s an ongoing process.  It‘s something that we‘ve really just begun to do.  But I am pleased to say that we have determined that there are cases where we do have sufficient evidence available, physical evidence to go forward with the prosecution.  So we‘re very hopeful that we will be able to go forward with the vast majority of our cases, even where the evidence was subjected to the storm waters.

ABRAMS:  Are you going to be able to have fun there tomorrow? 

JORDAN:  I‘m going to try to have fun.  It is difficult given the fact that this is against the backdrop of just enormous human tragedy.  But the city is determined to be resurrected and we‘re determined to go forward, so that‘s the reason why we‘re holding Mardi Gras this year. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Mr. Jordan, as I‘ve said to you many times, you have got one of the toughest jobs in America right now, and keep it up.  Thank you very much for coming back on the program.  We appreciate it. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.

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