From the 2007 News Archive
School of Law Students Work Alongside New Orleans Public Defenderís Office During Winter Break
Even a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, second-year University of Maryland School of Law student Brigid Ryan was astonished by the conditions she found as a summer 2006 volunteer in the Office of the Public Defender in New Orleans.
Like much of the city itself, the legal system seemed in ruins.
"Many of the people I saw had been incarcerated for minor offenses, such as failing to pay a parking fine or loitering. They were abandoned and placed in prison cells alongside people accused of violent crimes and with convicted felons," she said.
Inspired by her visit, Ryan has become a member of the Maryland Katrina and Indigent Defense Project
, a student group at the School of Law that has been leading nationwide efforts to help the New Orleans legal system recover from the catastrophe.
From Jan. 7-15, more than 50 School of Law students traveled to New Orleans to assist in the rebuilding process. More than a dozen worked on rehabilitating storm-damaged homes, and 36 first and second-year students worked with the Office of the Public Defender.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the Public Defenderís office was reduced to a skeletal staff of four attorneys responsible for roughly 6,000 clients whose issues range from parking tickets, to drug offences, to murder accusations. Louisiana law requires defendants receive a hearing at least 48 hours after their arrest and incarceration. A year after the disaster, some clients have not had a bail hearing, and Maryland students assisted the Public Defenderís office in working to resolve the backlog of cases, as well as process new cases.
Students participating in the legal portion of the trip were trained in criminal procedure and client interviewing during two training sessions on Nov. 10 and 17. Supervised by Professor Doug Colbert, the students assisted attorneys with interviewing roughly 500 individuals who have not yet received a hearing and tried to build a case for them. They also assisted in location efforts for many prisoners, who were moved from the cityís jails to prisons throughout Louisiana.
The students worked with law clinics from both Tulane and Loyola University, who have been assisting the Public Defenderís office as well. Professor Colbert has also received promises of assistance from law schools across the country. "Once we got the word out, our colleagues didnít hesitate to offer their assistance," he said. "Sometimes itís a simple matter of letting people know that thereís an opportunity to make a difference." Students have also appeared at gatherings of the Criminal Justice Council and the Race and Justice Committee of the American Bar Association, discussing the Project and enlisting the support of attorneys in private practice.
"We wanted to build on the past humanitarian efforts of our classmates and of the national Student Hurricane Network who worked in New Orleans during spring recess. Instead of devoting physical labor, however, we wanted to use our legal skills to call attention to the denial of counsel, an issue of special importance to our profession," said Ryan.
The opportunity to assist the understaffed Public Defenderís office was a challenge that excited many first- and second-year students. "This is one of the reasons Iím drawn to public interest law," said second-year student Anne Deady, who traveled to New Orleans for the first time. "The chance to help people who really need it is so valuable to any law student."
A Jan. 14 op-ed
reported on the students' efforts in New Orleans.