In its just-published annual report, the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA identifies what it calls a bedeviling “culture of continuances” at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court that is impeding justice for defendants.

The independent, volunteer-run audit of the criminal court docket found that in 2012, two-thirds of cases involved a continuance — a postponement.

The latest Court Watch NOLA findings are surprising, given changes that have taken place at Criminal District Court over the past year: Caseloads have shrunk because the prosecution of minor crimes has been shifted to municipal court; and a 2011 spike in criminal trials — driven by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s campaign to reduce the case backlog  — has run its course.

But instead of easing off in 2012, as expected, about 63 percent of criminal court cases entail a continuance before they are adjudicated.

“This means that when a Court Watch NOLA volunteer went to observe a scheduled hearing last year, it was continued — delayed — almost two-thirds of the time,” said the report, which was issued Wednesday and was based on thousands of volunteer observations of court proceedings throughout 2012.

“For defendants awaiting trial, justice delayed is justice denied – an unfair and expensive proposition as taxpayers are usually paying for their pretrial incarceration,” the report observed.

“The number-one reason for continuances … was that the defense attorneys themselves were not present in the courtroom when their cases were called.” — Court Watch NOLA report

Court Watch NOLA has been doing its annual survey since it was formed in 2007. Its volunteer force is made up of retirees and college students.

The biggest surprise in this year’s report?

“We expected improvement this year and we didn’t see it,” said executive director Brad Cousins.

The report notes that with the shift of misdemeanor charges to Municipal Court, the Criminal Court caseload plunged from 7,035 to 4,195 between 2011 and 2012 — but without an attendant drop in continuances.

Several factors play into the continuance conundrum but one stands out: budget and staff cuts at the Orleans Public Defenders’ office, which provides attorneys for indigent defendants.

“The number-one reason for continuances … was that the defense attorneys themselves were not present in the courtroom when their cases were called,” the report said.

The local indigent-services organization has seen huge turmoil in its budget and staffing in the past year — especially in early 2012.

The Orleans Public Defenders’ office fields a unit called the Conflict Division, which is charged with determining how multiple defendants charged on a single bill of information can be defended.

Chief public defender Derwyn Bunton recently told The Lens that the city’s anti-violence and anti-crime initiatives were driving the spike in cases involving multiple defendants.

The 10-person unit charged with organizing multiple-defendant cases was temporarily shut down in early 2012, leaving about 500 indigent defendants without lawyers. The unit was reactivated later in the year but with half its previous staff, and it struggled to catch up with the caseload.

Cousins said that the early-2012 problems at Orleans Public Defenders played out through the year, and many continuances ensued as a result of attempts to reassign cases to defense lawyers.

In an April 19 letter responding to the Court Watch findings, Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras singled out the multiple-defendant cases that Cannizzaro had been sending the court’s way as evidence of the “true and stark reality of what comprises our caseload.”

Buras rebuffed criticism of her caseload management and said that “many of the single-case filings that are on our docket involve multiple defendants with multiple charges, which, by their nature, take lengthier amounts of time to resolve to disposition.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...