Criminal Justice

New coalition wants small jail

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Anticipating a draft report this afternoon on the appropriate size of a new city jail, a coalition of smaller-jail advocates have renewed the call for an 850-bed jail in line with national averages.

The number is based on a national detention average of one bed per 388 residents. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman applied to the city for permits for a 5,800-bed jail in April, or one bed for every 60 residents, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition said in a position statement issued last night.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group will meet this afternoon at 3:30 in the eighth floor conference room at City Hall to review a draft report on the appropriate size of a new jail. The report was done by James Austin, a criminal-justice consultant working with the National Institute of Justice. The group is scheduled to make a  recommendation to the mayor on the size of a new jail by Nov. 22.

Gusman told the working group on Oct. 15 he will support a smaller jail if Austin’s analysis calls for one, although Gusman once sent architects a plan calling for 8,000 beds in his complex by 2020.

This afternoon’s meeting comes at a time when tensions are already heightened between Gusman and Landrieu: Landrieu walloped Gusman in his proposed budget, allocating only $22 million to the sheriff, compared to Gusman’s requested $36.3 million.

Gusman’s shrunken budget is scheduled to be reviewed by the City Council on Friday. That’s also the day when Gusman has threatened to withdraw his deputies from Criminal District Court if the city won’t pay him more money to provide security at the courthouse. Judges at the courthouse say they’ll be forced to close the building if a deal isn’t reached.

James Austin is scheduled to presenting a draft report this afternoon on the appropriate jail size for New Orleans.

Austin, Landrieu’s jail consultant, co-authored a book about “America’s imprisonment binge” in 2000. The book contains an early chapter on “the politics of the fear of crime,” blaming “the well-orchestrated effort by powerful interest groups since the 1960s to make crime the most important issue on the public’s mind.” Another chapter asks, “What has been accomplished by the imprisonment binge?”

Austin said any ideology inferred from his books is not relevant to his report to the city this afternoon.

“Governments and agencies hire me to do these population reports because they tend to be pretty accurate,” Austin said in an interview Thursday. “In the early 1980s, I did some projection work saying the (prison) population would likely go up, and it did. And now the signs point to the population being flat, or going down. That’s not because of my ideology. It’s just because of what’s going on.

“I do two things: I write books where the research I’ve done is featured, and the other side of my life is I do these population reports,” Austin said. “Today’s job is providing a product to the parish.”

The smaller-jail coalition also questioned the effectiveness of the mayor’s working group, saying it has not asked for “clear and consistent information on planning and financial documents” from Gusman. The group also criticized Gusman for providing no “information-based or practical rationale” for his plans for a new jail.

The coalition, which includes groups such as Critical Resistance, the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union and the Jesuit Research Institute, has been meeting actively for about six weeks, said spokeswoman Rosanna Cruz, from Voice of the Ex-Offender. Many of the members of the group also signed on to an advertisement in The Times-Picayune newspaper in September calling for a smaller jail, Cruz said.

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