By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
A resolution to move forward with building a 1,438-bed jail facility in New Orleans without deciding an overall size for the complex was proposed by someone who was not even a member of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s advisory group on the matter.
Landrieu’s office said Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray’s omission from the list of members was an “oversight,” and it is now changing the mayor’s executive order that created the group to include the judge.
Landrieu’s office said Gray was invited by the mayor at the same time as other members and that she has been an “active and engaged participant from the start.” However, Gray didn’t attend the first of six meetings and wasn’t listed as absent on minutes posted to the mayor’s website.
Gray showed up at the second meeting of the group, and most thereafter. But she didn’t play an active role until proposing the resolution to move ahead with the 1,438-bed jail on Nov. 19. She echoed Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s argument that conditions in his existing jail facilities are too poor to figure out other details, such as how many state prisoners to house, before moving ahead with the new facility.
Because of Gray’s resolution, Landrieu’s group did not meet its obligation spelled out in the mayor’s executive order to recommend a total size of the city’s jail by Nov. 22.
The group has been stymied by the complexity of its task, asking for a three-month extension to continue studying several issues, including whether there “is a need for additional capacity to house local inmates.”
Minutes from the group’s most recent meetings, on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23, when Gray’s resolution was passed, include District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s refusal to support Gray’s resolution because of “the call for demolishing and decommissioning the other facilities” at Gusman’s jail. Cannizzaro has also said he thinks the group worked based on “bad data.”
The district attorney joined Gusman and Municpal Court Judge Paul Sens in voting against the resolution.
Landrieu has also told The Lens that the size of the jail is a “moving target,” after Gusman told a crowd in eastern New Orleans he thinks he’ll need another 1,800 beds once the group is done.
Group members contacted by The Lens were reluctant to discuss Gray’s role in steering the group toward the resolution. But one group member said that Gray’s presence was a benefit.
“I thought it was very helpful having such a thoughtful and articulate elected judge on the working group,” said Metropolitan Services Director Calvin Johnson. “Judge Gray’s perspective was especially helpful because in Juvenile Court they have already had to initiate a pre-trial program, something we’re looking at to ease the burden on the adult system.”
Gray did not return calls to her office seeking comment.