By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has changed his position on work done by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group, saying he needs 1,800 more beds than the 1,438-bed facility recommended by the group.
Gusman made his remarks at a crime forum in eastern New Orleans hosted by City Councilman Jon Johnson Tuesday night.
“There ought to be another 1,800 beds so we can get to be about 3,200,” Gusman said. “But working with this committee, all they want to do is figure out how they can build it the smallest possible.”
This is the second time Gusman has challenged work done by the group, of which he is a part. On Nov. 23, Gusman convinced the group to back down from forcing him to demolish his existing jail facilities once the new 1,438-bed jail is built.
Landrieu convened the group in September to look at the impact of policy changes on jail population projections, like arresting fewer people for minor crimes. At the time, the City Council was considering a permit that Gusman needs before he can build his new facility. The council held off on that action, with members saying they wanted to hear the working group’s recommendation before voting.
Gusman told Fox8 News in November that he wanted to wait and see what numbers criminal justice consultant James Austin recommended before passing judgment on Austin’s work.
Gusman and the rest of the group voted yes on a resolution based on Austin’s work on Nov. 23, saying New Orleans would only need 1,485 beds to house local inmates by 2020.
In a letter sent Monday, Landrieu asked the City Council to vote to give Gusman the necessary construction permit to build his 1,438-bed jail. The working group will continue to meet for three more months to discuss other policy changes such as housing fewer state prisoners, although a date has not been set for the group’s next meeting, or for the council to consider the construction permit.
Gusman is already building an $11-million, 400-bed temporary jail, which he says will be demolished when the new facilities open in 2013.
If Gusman had 1,800 more beds, he might be able to house 1,800 more state prisoners because the City Council has no legal authority to control how many state prisoners Gusman houses, beyond its power to grant construction permits.
The only control the council has is in placing conditions on the building permit. Once it’s issued, the sheriff has sole power over his operation.
Gusman told The Lens in September that it’s up to the state how many state prisoners are housed locally, but the state said Gusman can keep as many state prisoners as he has room for.
Gusman has increasingly relied on revenues from the state to fund his operations over the past three years, and his jail holds more state prisoners than any other parish facility in Louisiana. His state revenue has risen by more than 60 percent in three years from $6.9 million in 2009 to $11.1 million predicted in 2011. Meanwhile, the city is actually slated to give Gusman less money in 2011 than it did last year.
Asked to respond to Gusman’s comments, Landrieu’s office said the working group isn’t done yet.
“They will continue to meet and will make data-driven recommendations to the mayor regarding the optimal size of the prison,” Landrieu’s spokesman Ryan Berni said.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a member of the working group and a co-chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said the working group will make a recommendation to Landrieu “as a group.”
A majority of working group members did not respond to requests for comment on Gusman’s remarks. Still, there are signs that consensus in the group is breaking down.
Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens said he reads Austin’s data to show New Orleans will need a jail of 2,800 beds in 2020.
“I don’t think 1,438 is a drop-dead number,” Sens said.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he thinks the group’s work was based on “bad data.”
“I have never committed to any specific number,” Cannizzaro said in a written statement. “While the Mayor has worked hard to assemble a good cross section of the community in his working group, our decision must be based on reliable data. To date, I am not certain that has been done. I believe the Mayor’s expert was given bad data.”
Gusman provided the data upon which Austin based his work.
Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said 1,400 beds should be enough, based on the data. What did he think of Gusman’s 3,200-bed projection?
“I disagree,” Bunton said.
Other members of the group took a stronger line against Gusman’s latest bed projections.
“There is no objective data that supports a 3,200-bed jail,” Metropolitan Human Services District boss Calvin Johnson said. “That may be what it may feels like to the sheriff, or what he may believe, but there’s no objective data. And if we’re going to make a data-driven decision, then we need to make a data-driven decision.”
Puentes director Lucas Diaz, a member of the working group, said it’s premature for Gusman to say how many beds he needs, before the working group is done with its work.
“We need to make a thorough assessment,” Diaz said. “It’s unfortunate because we came together to figure out what’s best for the city, and not to negotiate over a number.”