March 1, 2007 — The New Orleans justice system was troubled before Hurricane Katrina, but the storm then washed away records and drove defense lawyers out of town never to return. The cumulative effect was disastrous as defendants stayed stuck in jail as the legal system froze.
Iben O'Neal, 32, languished in a New Orleans jail for a year and a half after his arrest in 2005, without seeing a lawyer, judge or the inside of a courtroom.
"I actually felt like I wasn't going to get out," he told ABC News' Steve Osunsami. "I was lost."
O'Neal was arrested May 19, 2005, on a charge related to simple drug possession. He remained in jail three months later when Hurricane Katrina flooded the courts and the rest of the city. He finally walked out of jail in November 2006, after a group of young lawyers discovered his records and convinced a judge to release him.
"There are a lot of people been in there a couple of years, man, and never been to court," O'Neal said.
A study commissioned by the Justice Department highlights the issue, noting there are people who have waited in jail on no charges, and trials cannot take place even for defendants who wish to plead guilty.
The report goes on to say that for the "vast majority," primarily the poor, justice is simply "unavailable."
"When you are locking people away without caring whether they're getting the most basic level of justice, you are not only un-American, it's inhumane," he said.
There is very little money for public defenders, but one parish still spent $5 million to build a temporary facility, and it has requested an additional $57 million to rebuild one jail back to its pre-Katrina size
To many in New Orleans, it seems ridiculous to spend limited money rebuilding jails. O'Neal, who still faces trial, says the city doesn't need any more jails, it needs more justice.
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