By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

The city has saved $1.9 million so far this year in payments to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman thanks to policy changes that have led to housing 300 fewer prisoners a day.

But City Council Budget Committee Chairman Arnie Fielkow said the city’s financial relationship with Gusman remains “bizarre,” and needs restructuring.

The city pays Gusman $22 a day on a per-prisoner basis, and it had anticipated having to pay for 2,000 prisoners a day in 2011. Because of city policy changes that result in fewer arrests, Gusman’s office has been housing only 1,700 prisoners a day over the first quarter, said Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Cary Grant at this morning’s Budget Committee meeting.

Grant attributed the reduction to a December council vote to issue court summonses instead of arresting alleged minor criminals, and to the management efforts of Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. The change is remarkable, Grant said.

“Last year, at the end of the year, 1,700 was like a number we hadn’t seen in years,” Grant said. “Sometimes we were up over 3,000 prisoner days.”

The council voted in December to issue court summonses instead of arresting people for various minor crimes. Serpas also vowed in November to stop arresting people on minor out-of-parish warrants because they tended to languish at Orleans Parish Prison without being collected by the other parishes.

“What the jail is for, is for hardened criminals who we want locked away, but not for people loitering on the street or that type of thing,” Grant said. “What people don’t understand is that even at the least of the sentence you could have, if you stayed in jail for a weekend or three days, those are three days at $22 every day.”

The savings are all the more remarkable because Mayor Mitch Landrieu had already undercut Gusman’s requested $36.3 million in the 2011 budget, allocating just $22.7 million to the sheriff.

Fielkow praised the cost savings but questioned the nature of the city’s financial relationship with Gusman, particularly after learning that the city pays for Gusman to fuel his vehicles but has no stake in how the vehicles are chosen.

New Orleans’ daily rate per inmate, and the fuel agreement, originates from a lawsuit filed by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1969, on behalf of all prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison. It asked that the city pay the Sheriff’s Office sufficient money to maintain constitutional conditions. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree, a legally enforceable agreement between the parties.

An order establishing the daily rate was added in 1989 and has been amended several times since, most recently in 2003, to the current rate of $22.39 per day.

The ACLU withdrew its name from the lawsuit in 2009 on the grounds that its original intent — to improve jail conditions — had ultimately been turned on its head by the per diem system. They say the arrangement encourages jailing more people, leading to worse conditions.

“Our whole relationship with the sheriff’s office is just bizarre,” Fielkow said. “OK, you’ve got different prisoners that per diems are being paid by us, to the federal government. You’ve got cars being bought by them that we’re providing fuel for. I mean, this whole relationship needs a re-examination pursuant to the consent decree. We’re kind of all doing different things here. We need to bring them all together.”

Landrieu’s office is also working through a committee on further reforms aimed at reducing the number of prisoners in Gusman’s jail.

Gusman did not respond to a request for comment.