Still reaping the whirlwind in Baton Rouge

Can you imagine being held more than a month in jail and not even knowing what your charges are?

In Baltimore, detainees are brought before a court commissioner for a bail hearing within 24 hours of the arrest. But earlier this month in Baton Rouge, a handful of University of Maryland School of Law students spent their winter break working for the public defender’s office, preparing and interviewing detainees who had spent more than a month in jail without being charged.

The students were there as part of the school’s third annual law trip to volunteer in the Gulf Coast area affected by Hurricane Katrina and were the first student group to volunteer at the Baton Rouge jails.

Under Louisiana law, arrestees must be charged within 45 days for a misdemeanor and 60 days for a felony. They are not assigned a public defender until they are officially charged, according to third-year student Anne Deady.

“Another thing is that the Baton Rouge population doubled after Katrina,” said Deady, who helped organize the trip. “The government there was really worried there was going to be more crime so they beefed up the police force but not the PD’s office. So you had more people being arrested than before with fewer people to handle it.”

The public defender’s office is so strapped for resources that one PD currently has 850 cases — more than 10 times the American Bar Association’s recommended caseload, Deady said.

While Deady said the law students’ presence was “so welcomed” in Baton Rouge, there is only so much they can do. Is there anyone out there helping to lighten the load? If you’ve been down to the Gulf Coast to lend a helping hand — whether it’s in the legal system or the rebuilding effort — we’d love to hear about your experience.

LIZ FARMER, Legal Affairs Writer

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