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

Monday, February 08, 2010

"...a sign of the remarkable human spirit even after disaster"

I was very impressed upon witnessing the work that is going on at the Orleans Parrish Public Defenders. This is still a program in its infancy; up until around five years ago, New Orleans did not have a formal pubic defender’s office. Rather, the public defenders were private attorneys selected by the magistrates. As you might imagine, this led to a broken system in which magistrates could simply choose not to reappoint lawyers with whom they disagreed. The current system is flawed, as well. It does not seem that arrested citizens of New Orleans receive adequate defense, though this is not a result of lack of effort on the part of the Public Defenders. Instead, the system fails to function as it should because of a lack of funding.

In trying to improve the Office of the Orleans Parrish Public Defenders, recent law school graduates are generously donating their efforts. Benji, a recent graduate of Yale University Law School, and Sandy, a recent graduate of NYU Law School, were two of the Office’s law clerks with whom we worked. They are on fellowships; the Office does not have the resources to pay them. Both were exceedingly bright, motivated, and personable. That these individuals are spending their post-graduate time working for the Orleans PD, and not at more lucrative or prestigious firm jobs or judicial clerkships, speaks volumes. More than anything, the presence of these individuals at the Orleans PD gives me hope for the future of the justice system in New Orleans.

During our week at the office, the most beneficial work I felt I accomplished for the office was in a data entry project. In order to obtain $600,000 in additional funding from the State of Louisiana, the office needed to log all of the casework they had done over the past year in New Orleans Municipal Court. The forty law students working at the PD’s office during the week (ten from UNC, but also students from: American, Fordham, NYU, and Chicago-Kent) worked on this data entry. Much of the activities we engaged with throughout the week were beneficial from our perspective as students—jail visits, interviews before first appearances, watching trials. However, I feel that the data entry work was our single most substantial contribution to the Office of the Orleans PD. It will directly result in much-needed funds.

Finally, our trip to the Ninth Ward was a sobering but enriching experience. Ostensible signs of the devastation are gone; the debris has been long removed. Yet, subtle signs remain of what occurred four years ago. Concrete foundations marked where homes used to stand. And a lack of activity, generally, brings pause when witnessing a neighborhood that was once densely populated with thousands of New Orleans more indigent. Yet there are signs of hope. Creatively designed “Make it Right” buildings, built to be completely flood-proof and energy efficient, are scattered throughout the area. Slowly, some of the displaced are beginning to return to the area. Truly, this is a sign of the remarkable human spirit even after disaster. --Sam Diamant

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