For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Monday, February 08, 2010

"...A reflection of the city’s recovery...a reason for optimism"

My work at the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office focused primarily on first appearance interviews with people arrested for misdemeanor offenses at the criminal court, which is a short walk from the OPD’s office. Before the commissioner decided on the bonds of the inmates, we interviewed them and asked for information that might persuade the commissioner to reduce the bond. We also gathered contact information of family and friends who might be able to post the bond. The last step in the process was to call these people and let them know of an inmate’s bond.
This experience was much more valuable than I expected it to be, since it was my first contact with clients as a law student. I also developed a greater appreciation of the importance of public defenders. After seeing how the system works at the very early stages of a criminal case, I more fully realized that justice cannot be served without a competent and adequately staffed public defenders office.
Hurricane Katrina is obviously the main reason why our group from Carolina Law came to New Orleans, but I found that the events of five years ago held a different significance than I thought they would. Rather than dealing with the direct consequences of Katrina, our work reflected how New Orleans has become a hub for volunteers from around the country traveling to a major American city to address urban poverty. Law students from NYU, American University, Fordham, and Chicago-Kent joined Carolina Law students at the OPD office and we worked together for a week. There were over 30 law students in the office. Our supervisor himself originally came to New Orleans as a law student from Yale a year after Katrina, and he decided to work at the OPD as an intern during one of his summers before working full-time for the office after he graduated. In fact, the OPD itself seems to have taken off only after Katrina—before the hurricane, there was no public defenders office. Now, there are around 50 attorneys working in the OPD and they regularly receive and train volunteers. After we leave, 30 more volunteers from other law schools will be arriving the following week. Although there are serious problems in New Orleans and Katrina still exerts a shadow on this city, the OPD was a reflection of the city’s recovery and provides a reason for optimism. -- Jared Elosta

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