Criminal Justice

Jail advisory ripped by sheriff is scheduled to meet with him this afternoon at City Hall

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

The committee established by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to advise him on issues regarding the city’s jail complex meets today at 2, less than a day after Sheriff Marlin Gusman blasted the group’s work in a letter to the City Council.

The Council is to consider Thursday a long-tabled ordinance that will let Gusman start building new jail cells. The ordinance was strongly guided by the work of the mayor’s working group on criminal justice.

Gusman wrote that the ordinance granting him permission to build a 1,438-bed jail facility contains provisions that would be “impossible for the Sheriff’s Office to accomplish, and absolutely not in the best interest of our citizens.”

Chief among Gusman’s complaints is a requirement that the new facility accommodate all types of inmates, from local pre-trial detainees to state convicts, and  mental-health patients to federal immigration prisoners.

The working group made that requirement so that it could call for Gusman to demolish all other jail facilities and shrink the jail complex capacity within the bounds recommended by a national expert.

In his letter, Gusman also questioned a requirement that he use the Orleans Parish Prison only as a holding facility, not long-term housing, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $24 million to upgrade it after Hurricane Katrina.

“Clearly, this stipulation demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding and knowledge of the operations of the Sheriff’s Office,” Gusman wrote.

The sheriff also wrote that a call for him to demolish 400 new temporary beds within 365 days of the 1,438-bed facility being completed “is unrealistic and must be amended.”

Many of the other provisions are “arbitrary, capricious, and beyond the responsibility and authority of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to accomplish,” Gusman wrote.

Gusman only agreed to abide without condition to one of the 21 conditions of the ordinance, a minor clause regarding a right-of-way lease.

Gusman called for the removal or amendment of several conditions, wrote that one could only be complied with if the city gives “substantial additional funding,” and only agreed to abide by several others “to the extent possible.”

The City Council is scheduled to grant Gusman permission to build the 1,438-bed jail by voting on the ordinance on Feb. 3.

Despite his objections, Gusman put pressure on the council grant him a permit as planned on Feb. 3, since “delaying this project would be irresponsible, possibly causing major expense to the City and negatively impacting the safety of its citizens.”

Landrieu’s chief aide, Andy Kopplin, who is running the working group for the mayor, issued a statement this morning through a spokesman, writing that he had received the letter.

“Mayor Landrieu is committed to building a new jail facility that is the right size — based on data and national best practices — as expeditiously as possible,” Kopplin wrote, noting that Gusman had been a member of the working group throughout.

Stacy Head, Susan Guidry and Jackie Clarkson, the three councilwomen on the working group, all declined comment this morning.

One working group member said the sheriff is playing politics.

“Obviously he’s trying to manipulate the process. He’s the sheriff of New Orleans, and like any parish sheriff in Louisiana he has great clout, and he’s trying to exercise his clout,” said Calvin Johnson, former chief judge of Criminal District Court. “I understand politics, and the way the game is played, and he’s playing the game.”

Johnson agreed with Gusman on the idea that a re-entry facility needs to be built separate from the 1,438-bed facility.

Puentes director Lucas Diaz, a community advocate who also serves on the working group, described Gusman’s letter  as“unfortunate,” but said he wanted to hear from Landrieu before commenting further because he did not want to “jeopardize the effort” of the working group.

Loyola law professor Michael Cowan, who as part of the working group is teamed with Gusman on a study to see how many more local beds might need to be built, did not return a call seeking comment.

Landrieu formed the group in September to make a final recommendation on the size of Gusman’s planned new jail complex by Nov. 22.

Instead, the group recommended the council grant Gusman a permit for a 1,438-bed jail facility while it continues to puzzle over a total number of beds. It is not expected to make a final recommendation until at least April, based on extensive discussions, policy changes, and data analysis.

Gusman has publicly criticized the 1,438-bed number, saying he thinks he needs 3,200 beds, although he has admitted his position is based on “institutional knowledge” and no formal studies. Landrieu has said the total number of beds is a moving target.

The working group meets again this afternoon on the 8th floor of City Hall at 2 p.m.

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