New Orleans Criminal District Court was “substantially” more efficient in 2013 than in years prior, according to a report released Wednesday by Court Watch NOLA.
Although the report found that judges are still showing up late to the bench, causing a waste of time and taxpayer money, continuances dropped from 63 percent in 2011 and 2012 to 60 percent in the first half of 2013 and 57 percent in the second half of the year.
It’s important to a speedy and fair justice system that there are as few continuances as possible, according to Court Watch NOLA.
“Unnecessary court delays pose a danger to public safety, taxpayer dollars, and basic fairness,” the report reads. “The longer criminal cases take, the more likely evidence and witnesses are to be lost. And for innocent defendants, justice delayed is justice denied, an unfair and expensive proposition when the City must pay to incarcerate many of the defendants awaiting trial.”
More than 100 Court Watch NOLA volunteers observed 2,647 violent felony cases in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to arrive at conclusions for the report. According to the volunteers, the most observed reasons for continuances included a trial in progress, failure to produce a defendant in custody, a defense attorney being unavailable and unscheduled court room closures.
The length of the delays also decreased, according to the report — although, in general, it was found that defense delays were “disproportionately” caused by private defense attorneys. Roughly two-thirds of observed continuances were caused by private lawyers, even though public defenders represent between 80 to 85 percent of all defendants in Criminal District Court.
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, delays matter.
“Routine granting of continuances, without requiring a showing of exceptional cause, signals a lack of judicial supervision of case progress and often results in case delays and backlogs,” according to the bureau. “In courts where the widely held view is that dates are not credible and continuances are easily obtained, lawyers are less likely to meet deadlines.”
The biggest factors contributing to improved courtroom efficiency include smaller dockets, more plea deals and a more focused Criminal Court, according to the report.
Judges Karen Herman, Keva Landrum-Johnson, Robin Pittman and Franz Zibilich were found to have the lowest percentage of continuances in the courthouse. Herman and Landrum-Johnson had a continuance rate of 40 percent in the second half of 2013, the report says.
The highest percentages of continuances for that time period came in the courtrooms of Judges Laurie White (65 percent) and Camille Buras (64 percent), the report says.
Legally, judges are bound to grant continuances that prosecutors and defense attorneys jointly request, but Court Watch NOLA volunteers only observed 18-24 percent of those kinds of requests in 2013.
The report also documented how long it takes for some judges to get to the bench in the morning. Judge Frank Marullo took a median time of 56 minutes from the subpoena start time to take the bench in the second half of 2013, while Judge Arthur Hunter took a median time of 43 minutes.
Judges Pittman and Julian Parker were prompt to get to the bench in the morning, according to the report.
The report notes that judges often have work in chambers, meetings or conferences to attend before taking the bench. However, the tardiness is still inefficient, especially when witnesses and lawyers are waiting in the courtroom for upwards of 30 minutes, according to the report.
“In the meantime, unfortunately, public servants, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, deputies, court staff, and testifying police officers must wait for the Judge’s arrival,” the report reads. “Thus, even if the judge is doing administrative work in chambers, or attending a conference or legislative meeting, as many do, this delay wastes valuable time and taxpayer money, in the form of those public servants’ salaries and overtime pay.”