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State of Emergency, Still
As she has done every month since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in August 2005, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has renewed Louisiana's state of emergency for both storms for the month of May. By nearly all accounts, Louisiana has never had to operate in such a state for this long, but the extra powers are needed to deal with continuing problems in the prison system and to keep collecting certain reimbursements from the federal government, says Terry Ryder, the governor's executive counsel. Although it's unknown how much longer the two states of emergency will be needed, Ryder says they're likely to last throughout 2007. He adds that the declaration for Katrina will probably outlast Rita's because of the devastation still present in southeast Louisiana. "The governor hasn't made a decision yet on how much longer it will be needed," he says. Blanco most recently used the extra power -- a state of emergency does not limit Louisiana's capabilities, but rather adds to them -- to deploy National Guard troops to help police New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may also need it to commandeer land and avoid the normal expropriation process. Most notably, however, the declarations have been used to justify the daily movement of prisoners, mental patients and certain court participants, since many facilities in coastal Louisiana were destroyed and haven't been replaced or repaired yet, Ryder says. As this year's hurricane season approaches, Ryder says Louisiana citizens should rest easy knowing the declarations are in place. "If something should happen again, we'll be better prepared having this in place," he says. -- Alford

 

More Lege Changes?
Recent years have seen voters approve several changes to the way the Legislature operates, from separating out fiscal sessions to increasing the number of bills a lawmaker can file in "fiscal only" sessions. More changes will be on the way if Rep. Loulan Pitre, a Republican from Cut Off, has his druthers. Pitre's House Bill 304, a proposed constitutional amendment, would do away with special sessions, which are called by the governor or a majority vote of the Legislature, as well as the current regular session structure. Presently, lawmakers take up fiscal matters during odd-numbered years and non-fiscal matters during even-numbered years, although there are exceptions in both cases. Pitre's proposal would replace the existing system with a year-round session starting Jan. 1, 2009. If the change garners enough votes, a regular session would be continuous throughout the year, convening the second week of each month from January through October -- unless the governor calls an emergency session and the call is backed by a two-thirds legislative vote. It's a dramatic change that will likely garner more debate on the House floor in coming weeks. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill unanimously, but only to allow a debate in the lower chamber. After the meeting adjourned, however, it became clear that Pitre may have selected the right session to push his operational reform. "I don't care anyway," says Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, the term-limited chair of the committee. "I won't be here next year." -- Alford

 

POWER-less
NOPD and the DA's office are expected to start joint training sessions in June to improve the quality of police report writing, a spokesperson for DA Eddie Jordan said last week. Well-written, comprehensive police reports are considered key to prosecuting criminals in court. The overall quality of NOPD reports has suffered in recent years, resulting in the refusal of cases brought to the DA's office for prosecution. The long-awaited training has been delayed by a shortage of money and personnel in both agencies post-Katrina, officials say. However, neither NOPD nor the DA's office has sought help from the only local police organization that sponsors an annual award for police report writing. Police Officers With Every Rank (POWER) has presented a report-writing honor to the top graduate of each NOPD recruit class for at least the last five years, says POWER President Susan Graham, a retired NOPD lieutenant and the department's former court liaison. Graham says the group has much to contribute, if asked. Founded 10 years ago to advocate for women in policing, the recently renamed organization now emphasizes training for male and female officers alike. -- Johnson

 

Encouraging Sign
A leading critic of the local criminal justice system says he sees a significant step toward improving the prosecution of violent offenders at Tulane and Broad. "A real plus is additional funding of the DA's violent offender career criminal unit," says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission. The City Council recently approved raising maximum salaries for prosecutors to $80,000 a year, up from $60,000. District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. is seeking veteran prosecutors who have worked at least 50 jury trials to staff the special unit. Among his recent hires is a prosecutor from the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office. "We have hired six [prosecutors] and need two more," says DA spokesperson Dalton Savwoir Jr. The special unit boasts a 100 percent conviction rate through 16 cases so far this year. The special prosecutorial team handles cases brought by NOPD Maj. James Scott, who as commander of the police intelligence division has targeted 71 career violent offenders. The unit revives the concept of a career criminal bureau, a nationally recognized innovation begun in 1973 by Jordan predecessor Harry Connick. -- Johnson

 

'701 Releases' Down
A recent agreement between Police Chief Warren Riley and DA Eddie Jordan is helping cops and prosecutors plug one of the worst cracks in the local criminal justice system, sources say. The number of notorious "701 releases" of jailed criminal suspects dropped by one-third in April -- from 580 in January, says one source. Official figures on the "701 releases" are expected this week. The name refers to Section 701 of the state Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires prosecutors to release a suspect if charges are not accepted within 60 days of his or her arrest. Many criminals know about the law and refer to "doing DA time" -- that is, going to jail for only 60 days for a felony. "Through a committed working partnership with the district attorney's office, we are seeing a reduction in 701 releases, which is continuing," said NOPD Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo. Earlier this year, many violent crimes were linked to suspects who had been "701 released," causing a public uproar. Cops accused prosecutors of failing to charge arrestees in a timely manner, and the DA's office countered that police failed to file comprehensive reports on time. Assisted by the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, Riley and Jordan on March 15 announced new protocols designed to remove bureaucratic barriers between their two agencies. "The police department will get crime reports to us within 24 days, and the DA is accepting drug field tests," for prosecution pending authentication of contraband by certified laboratories, DA spokesperson Dalton Savwoir Jr. said of the deal last week. -- Johnson

 

Uneven History
Police Chief Warren Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. drew snickers from local observers March 15 when they announced an "historic" agreement to improve the working relationship between their two offices. Aren't police and prosecutors supposed to work together? Ideally, yes. Historically? Not always. In a 1973 book discussing his study of NOPD arrests, Loyola University sociologist Fr. Joseph Fichter noted an ongoing feud in the early 1960s between then-Police Chief Joseph Giarrusso and District Attorney Jim Garrison. The DA once said he had "more trouble with the command of the police department than with all the racketeers in town," Fichter wrote. "Meanwhile, Giarrusso was conducting a police investigation of the district attorney's office." In May 1963, Giarrusso observed that public confidence suffers when the two agencies "are constantly engaged in one controversy after another." In the late 1980s, DA Harry Connick and Police Chief Warren Woodfork sparred over the number of police investigators assigned to Connick's office. Subordinates of both leaders continued to work together as their bosses clashed. Connick enjoyed a generally good relationship with Police Chief Richard Pennington. Relations between Jordan and Riley reached a low point after the Dec. 28, 2006, indictments of seven NOPD officers, known as the "Danziger 7," on murder charges. Amid subsequent public alarm over rising crime, the two lawmen have taken pains in recent months to appear as a team. Supporters of the new rapprochement worry that the controversial Danziger 7 case ultimately will sour the new relationship. -- Johnson

 

Missing Brinkley
Already Notice anything missing from local news coverage last week of Jimmy Carter's visit to the New Orleans area? How about a quote from Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley? Until recently, reporters and producers would have called up Brinkley, a presidential historian at Tulane University, for a comment or even an on-camera interview. But the author of The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Quest for Global Peace (1998) is leaving for Rice University. His pending departure was announced the week before Carter's visit. The former president toured parts of the New Orleans area that are rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. He helped raise a wall on the 1,000th home built by Habitat for Humanity, his signature nonprofit. And he tried to downplay a newspaper interview in which he characterized the Bush Administration as "the worst in history." Some critics have said that distinction belongs to Carter, who left the White House in 1981. Ironically, Brinkley last week was expected to begin signing copies of a new book on the private diaries of Carter successor Ronald Reagan (May 23, Harper Collins). Brinkley begins teaching at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy July 1. "I'll continue spending a lot of time in New Orleans, where we have family, but Texas will be my primary home, " Brinkley, 47, says of his wife and three children. -- Johnson

 

The Big Dawg
Although Congress' fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition has only 43 members, the Democratic organization still names a "Blue Dog of the Week" every seven days, meaning everyone should get a turn by, say, the end of fall if the group is staying on schedule. Last week, the honor went to Congressman Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville for his ongoing efforts to help the Gulf Coast recover from the 2005 hurricane season. "Rep. Melancon understands the importance of prioritizing taxpayer dollars in a way that is fiscally responsible for the American people," says Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, communication chair for the Blue Dogs. Melancon was also instrumental in crafting a new House-passed, pay-as-you-go budget discipline, known as "PAYGO," with no new deficit spending. The rule, which was in place when the nation had its first balanced budget in nearly 30 years from 1998 to 2001, has been extended to the Senate with the recent passage of the 2008 federal budget resolution. -- Alford

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