New Orleans’ nickname “Big Easy” was based on the “anything goes” perception of the city. Feeding this perception was a sense of lawlessness, that New Orleans was a place where the rules changed depending on who you were and who you knew. So when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005 and tossed everything around—flooding mansions and missions, damaging the Superdome and supermarkets—the storm challenged old perceptions and presented unique challenges. Katrina made at least one thing clear: New Orleans could no longer wait for change, pretend nothing happened, or look back. The city’s survival depended on its ability to move forward.

One of the greatest challenges to New Orleans’ ability to move forward was its criminal legal system, especially the public defense system. For decades before Katrina, the public defense system in New Orleans—like others throughout Louisiana—was “plagued by negligent attorneys who provide[d] haphazard and deficient representation.” Orleans Parish Prison, for example, was packed with more than six thousand people, most of whom had no representation once Katrina hit. Fragile and underfunded, the New Orleans public defense system lacked the ability to even try to respond to the crisis of Katrina. All but four staff members were terminated immediately after the storm. Like most social institutions in New Orleans, however, public defense in New Orleans had been targeted for reform multiple times before Katrina, with few positive results.



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