By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s jail advisory working group is moving slower than expected, and members are beginning to polarize on contentious issues relating to the total space in Orleans Parish Prison.

The group initially was charged with making a recommendation on the overall jail size by Nov. 22, but instead of setting a cap, it simply recommended that the City Council let Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman move ahead with a new 1,438-bed intake and processing facility and close most other facilities. The group then planned to spend several more months on other details before recommending the total number of beds.

The slow pace and contentious atmosphere at Tuesday’s meeting, the first since February, suggested it could be some time before that final decision is reached.

In January, the group broke into pairs to examine specific issues. Gusman and Loyola University professor Michael Cowan are examining the key question of capacity. However, they weren’t among those presenting findings Thursday.

Working group leader Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said he expected their presentation only “when they are ready.”

Gusman did not discuss the issue Thursday, though he has said he needs more than the 1,438 approved by the council. Cowan said the pair wanted to keep their deliberations private for now.

“I’m not going to comment on the process as we engage in it, until we make the final presentation,” Cowan said, and he was unable to give an estimate as to when that might be.

Meanwhile, the group discussed making changes to the sheriff’s work-release program to reduce the number of inmates from outside Orleans Parish; linking criminal justice funding to the reduction of race disparity in the jail population; and creating a risk-assessment tool, or bond schedule, to reduce disparities among treatment of defendants.

Bond schedules were the most contentious issue of the afternoon. Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Terry Alarcon attacked a plan by Chief Criminal Defender Derwyn Bunton to introduce bond schedules, which would include a risk-assessment instrument designed to assess the flight risk of a defendant before a bond is set.

“Money bond is inherently discriminatory,” Bunton said. “We had to confront the fact that if you got money, you make bond. If you don’t got money, you don’t make bond. You run the risk of sending the affluent, dangerous person home while keeping the poor, not-so-dangerous person in jail.”

Alarcon said he thinks the existing law around bond setting is fine, and that any effort to impose a risk-assessment measure would be “marginalizing the judiciary.”

“I think the law is fine. It’s for the court to consider. And if folks don’t like it, have the law repealed,” Alarcon said.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed with Alarcon, saying he thought the existing law allowed judges the appropriate level of discretion.

“Not to say that this is an exercise in futility but I’m leaning in that direction,” Cannizzaro said.

Bunton shot back.

“What we get is a tool that can more accurately measure those populations and their risk factors in reoffending,” Bunton said.

Left to right: Derwyn Bunton, Terry Alarcon, Leon Cannizzaro. Photo by Matt Davis

On re-entry programs, Juvenile Judge Ernestine Gray said she was concerned about conducting work release programs for prisoners from around the state. But a letter from the state Department of Public Safety was distributed, expressing concern about reducing the number of current 700 or so prisoners in New Orleans’ work release program to around 250.

Voice of The Ex-Offender’s Norris Henderson said convicts deserved better than a 90-day stint of work release at Gusman’s jail.

“Folks are being musical chaired around the state for the state’s convenience, and at the end of the day, we send them back down to Orleans Parish for 90 days, say to the sheriff, ‘See what you can do.’ That’s a joke,” Henderson said. “We talk about helping people. We gotta meet ‘em a whole lot earlier than this.”

Former Puentes New Orleans director Lucas Diaz represented both his organization and Landrieu’s office at the meeting, having been hired last month to head Landrieu’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement. Diaz’ nametag still identified him as a representative of Puentes, although Kopplin said that Diaz did a “good job of wearing two hats.”

Diaz recommended conducting a detailed study into racial disparities in the criminal justice system, “allowing the community into the process,” establishing goals, and then tying criminal justice funding to performance measures around race.

Diaz suggested that the group use his newly created position to affect change.

Lucas Diaz was hired by Landrieu’s office last month.

Kopplin said he was unready to deliver a scheduled presentation alongside Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson about how to pay for all the possible changes. Likewise, Councilwoman Susan Guidry said that her scheduled presentation about a pre-trial release program with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was unfinished.

The group is likely to meet again in two weeks, although a meeting date is yet to be set.

Notice for Monday’s meeting was posted just 25 hours beforehand on the wall outside the meeting room on the 8th floor of City Hall. Though that meets the letter of the state’s open-meetings law, The Lens was unaware of the meeting until Monday despite numerous e-mails to Landrieu’s office seeking clarification on the date and time. The meeting was not among the other official municipal proceedings listed on the city’s website.

When asked whether the last-minute and remote advertisement of the meeting fits with Landrieu’s repeated commitment to government openness, mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni offered no comment.