By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Having not met for almost two months, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group will now need at least three more months before making a final recommendation on the total capacity of a new city jail.

The group already was granted one three-month extension. Landrieu initially charged the group in September with making a final size recommendation by Nov. 22.

Instead, the group agreed to let Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman move ahead towards building a 1,438-bed jail facility, but it didn’t set that as a cap. Since then, the group was supposed to meet for three more months to consider the impact of things such as better pre-trial release services and mental health services on the total number of inmates at the jail.

Even without a final recommendation, The City Council will vote on a permit for the 1,438-bed facility in early February.

The group now plans to meet every other Friday to consider at least six more topics, putting it on track to meet until at least April, before making a final recommendation on the jail size.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin divided the group into seven pairs this afternoon, with each duo charged with researching the following issues:

  • • Sheriff Marlin Gusman and  Michael Cowan of Loyola University: Additional local jail capacity.
  • • District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Councilwoman Susan Guidry: Pre-trial release.
  • • Metropolitan Crime Commission boss Rafael Goyeneche and Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation chief Flozell Daniels: Work release.
  • • Retired Judge Calvin Johnson and Judge Paul Sens: Mental health and substance abuse.
  • • Chief Ronal Serpas and the Rev. Antoine Barriere: Racial disparity among inmates.
  • • Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and Kopplin: Funding mechanism for sheriff’s office.
  • • Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton and Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson: Bonding schedule.

Kopplin declined to set a deadline for the group to make its final recommendations, although he admitted that studies for some of the work could take several months to complete.

“I’m not going to set myself a deadline,” he said. “I think the primary recommendation was to look at the 1,400-bed facility. The other questions are on a somewhat slower timetable, but we’ll meet every other week to resolve those. Now, I don’t want to have this workgroup meet for the next two years, but there may well be a role for an ongoing criminal justice steering group in seeing that our recommendations are implemented with fidelity.”

Kopplin was prevented from answering further questions by Landrieu’s press secretary, Ryan Berni, who said he was anxious to get Kopplin to a meeting with the mayor. But Berni did have time to answer one last question: Has the remit of the working group basically changed since Landrieu signed the executive order to create it?

“It’s broadened,” Berni said.

This afternoon, the group considered a presentation on re-entry programs by Stefan LoBuglio, director of re-entry for the Montgomery County, Md., . Department of Corrections.

Pre-release expert Stefano LoBuglio addresses the working group this afternoon.

LoBuglio talked the group through the success of a $6 million, 171-bed pre-release center in Montgomery County, which has achieved some success in reintegrating offenders back into working life. But he faced some queries, and he only provided some key answers under questioning.

“I don’t understand why you don’t have any statistics on recidivism,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said. “You’ve been doing this for 30 years, and if it’s no better than just putting people out on the street, then we need to know that, especially before we spend all this extra money on it.”

Head questioned the efficiency of the re-entry program.

He said  49 percent of offenders going through the program were reconvicted within three years, although only 19 percent were reconvicted for “serious crimes.” But he didn’t offer statistics for offenders released without the program.

Criminal justice consultant James Austin, who has been providing data analysis to the group in partnership with the National Institute of Justice, cut in. He said re-entry programs are most successful if they target offenders most likely to re-offend.

“I’m pretty confident that we can show a good result here if we target properly,” Austin said, adding that the program is the “BMW or the Mercedes Benz of re-entry programs.”

Kopplin responded with a rough calculation that the program would cost $4.5 million annually in New Orleans. It could recoup $1.5 million a year in program fees, collected as a sort of tax on the working inmates, and another $2 million from the state, he said.

“That’s only a difference of about $1 million on what we’re paying already,” Kopplin said.

The group will meet again on Jan. 28.