Friday, June 15, 2007

Justice Restored?

So, while I was volunteering in NOLA over winter break ('07), one of the areas I worked on was helping people appeal their FEMA recoupment notices. Most of these people were being asked for around $20,000 to be returned to the federal government, because it had been given to them in error. This $20K was distrubuted to help people pay for lost personal property.

In the cases I saw, and I'm sure many others, these people didn't have ANY money to give back. Oddly enough...they had spent the money on...of all personal property (imagine that...the nerve!) And these clients had their receipts to prove it. Receipts for pots and pans, clothes, toiletries, furniture, etc.

So, I understand the government demanding replayment of funds that were fraduently collected by survivors who were trying to "work the system." But that wasn't the case here at all. They were a woman who lived with her abusive boyfriend, so when he collected homeowners insurance on his house, and didn't share any with her so she could replace HER property that was in the house, she applied for FEMA funds. They were a woman who was encouraged by FEMA to apply for more funds, because the FEMA worker glanced in her house and saw that she had nice furniture that would certainly rise above the $5,000 she was going to get in homeowner's insurance. These are the people that were going to have their $20,000 debt, sent to a collection agency, because the government wasn't careful in reviewing claims and too disorganized to do its job properly.

The attorney I was working with told me that there was probably no chance that these people would get the waivers we were requesting, because FEMA is flooded with these sort of requests. I mean, why would they grant waivers to special cases, when nearly every recoupement they were issuing was due to a special circumstance (most notably, FEMA error in dispursing the money in the first place)? But like all of the freedom fighters in NOLA, she said we had to try.

Luckily, this week, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Lousiana ordered a preliminary injuction for FEMA and Homeland Security to stop recoupments until these people have a chance to be heard. Perhaps this is a small sign that justice is getting back on its feet in the Gulf Coast?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poetry Slams: A Casualty of Katrina

When I was living in Baltimore, the year before I came back to the midwest, god bless it, for law school, I read in poetry slams maybe once or twice a month. You know: "roses are red, violets are blue, I'm angsty and lonely, symbolism about this and that, Che Gueverra," the usual. I haven't read much this last school year, but having some extra time on weekends, I decided to seek out some slams.

Oddly, it turns out that, while New Orleans did have a slam poetry scene before Katrina, that scene left with the storm. Many of those interested in slam poetry left. Many of the venues, such as the Dragon's Den, which would host slams got shut down and are just reopening, if they are reopening at all. I went to 3 or 4 venues and searched the internet for a long time and couldn't find a slam, nor could anyone point me to one.

This just goes to show how many of New Orleans' niches were affected by Katrina. Even the poetry left.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

1 Week Down

Just one week and my apprehensions have faded. First of all, while I do still think fighting crime is very important, most "fighting crime" seems to consist of giving young men outrageously long drug possession sentences. At the end of the day, I can easily reconcile defending anyone, even the guilty, with my conscience for two main reasons. First, justice should not depend on class. If rich people can get good attorneys to get them off, then poor people deserve the same. Also, as just alluded to, many defendants are very young and face very long jail sentences. The system is too quick to throw in the towel on people's lives and sometimes, if given the choice between not punishing the guilty and flushing a young, albeit guilty, person's life down the drain, I choose the former. But I guess I'm rationalizing a little. Can you hear it over the world wide web?

I was also apprehensive because I thought the system down here may be too broke for me to do any good. I couldn't feel that way less. This is not too say that the public defender is adequately funded or staffed. Far from. PD's still often have upwards of 50 active cases at once and there is only one xerox machine for a staff of about 50 or 60 (I should double check that number maybe) just to name a few examples off the top of my head. Still, the PD system has been largely revamped and improved after Katrina and its fallout drew attention to its inadequacies. The PD used to have a single room office and we now have a floor. The PD used to have no permanent staff, but rather a series of private attorneys that worked part time for the PD and cycled in and out. Now there is a permanent staff. Kudos to the many former part timers who decided to work for the PD full time.

In this column I feel the same tension, to a much smaller extent obviously, as the PD staff in general. The PD is in the strange position of having to prove its own inadequacy and its own progress. Progress, to show that its possible, inadequacy, to call attention to the fact that more help and resources are desperately needed.

As to my specific job, I have been paired with two lawyers and another intern. For the lawyers, I have looked over case files and brainstormed to think of arguments (generally fact specific, not constitutional) with the lawyers. It's very gratifying. I feel like I'm getting my hands dirty and that the lawyers really appreciate the interns. Sometimes I imagine myself as Jack McCoy (open this link).

Pure Insanity Fact of the Week (hence the insaaaaaane font): Arrested people can be held in pretrial detention for 60 days without being charged with a crime. Until recently, these people would not even have a lawyer for this period of time.