Monday, April 16, 2007

Louisiana Justice Coalition

In the aftermath of Katrina, the racial and economic divide in New Orleans became increasingly apparent. Those who needed legal representation the most, unfortunately, were also the ones who were least likely to get it. This past Spring Break, I worked for the Louisiana Justice Coalition, an organization that advocates for our country’s long-standing commitment to “justice for all.” The Justice Coalition is similar to the University of Wisconsin in that it values community involvement and justice, and has many programs that provide legal aid. Like UW, the Coalition also has an Innocence Project that has freed many wrongfully accused residents. Having received a grant to publish a newsletter, the Justice Coalition will now be able to spread its message throughout Louisiana to groups, organizations, and individuals who would otherwise be precluded from what is constitutionally guaranteed to them.

In one week, my Wisconsin SHN colleagues and I were able to put together a list of over a thousand names and addresses. The three of us, along with one of the leaders of the Justice Coalition, were each responsible for researching an area of Louisiana and accumulating contact information for organizations that could possibly benefit from its services. In doing this research, I came to realize that there are plenty of organizations that either remain in Louisiana after Katrina, or that were formed later. However, the Justice Coalition was one of only a few organizations that offers legal aid, thus emphasizing its significance, and the importance of spreading the message of its existence and its mission. At the end of the week, I felt a sense of gratification because we were able to finish a product, whereas some projects in New Orleans are ongoing.

I fell in love with the city after my first visit over Winter Break, and will likely return in the future. New Orleans is as diverse as it is unique, and in a sense, has become America’s city. Thus, it’s important that we all help to rebuild it, and that we continue to bring law in action to New Orleans.

I worked with Charlie and Sophy Chuhn @ the Louisiana Justice Coalition which is located inside
the Justice Center in New Orleans. The center is so named, because it holds probably 5 different non-profit civil rights litigation
groups and thus is a nexus of righteous activity. Our organization could only afford one staff person--Heather Hall––
but the other people working with us really gave us a feeling of solidarity. The place was sparse, but it had
that positive energy that fighting the good fight should give you. The problems in Louisiana, particularly faced
by indigent criminal defendants are truly insane.

The lawyering here is on the edge as well. It's not trying to be "good." It's a necessity.
I was thinking about an admonition shared with the SHN students from Tracie Washington, a diligent NAACP
attorney from NOLA. Tracie said that when you're working in this type of advocacy, you always have to be vigilant.
The fight doesn't "end" and that makes a person really, really tired.

For example:
If you prevent "the man" once from demolishing low income housing in the name of renewal––housing that
poor residents need––and that isn't REALLY too blighted for people to live in; it doesn't mean
you won't have to do it 10 more times when the same forces coalesce to do the same thing using a different tack.
Louisiana corruption is overt and covert. The benefit of the attention Katrina drew to NOLA is that people are paying
attention now, and it turns out that "the forces that be" were so used to getting away with things that they didn't
cover their tracks so well; the sloppiness helps to stop the nonsense. It was wonderful to hear Ms. Washington
say that over the last 18 months, what they've really done is teach people how to fight.
People are less and less resigned to getting the absolute minimum and less afraid that they are " asking too much."

I'd go again in an instant, and again and again and again.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The Louisiana public defender system is in disarray. Orleans Parish lost 38 percent of its attorneys after Hurricane Katrina dropping from 42 to 26. Many of those are on temporary contracts. The remaining attorneys struggle to handle all felony cases.

The American Bar Association stipulates defense attorneys should handle no more than 150 felony cases per year while the state standard calls for no more than 200. Defense attorneys in New Orleans now handle as many as three times that amount, said Steve Singer, chief of trials for the public defender system. Singer said the caseload makes it difficult to mount a competent defense.

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