Sheriff blocking reform, says councilwoman, causing group to delay decision on jail size

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By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is delaying a criminal-justice reform measure that would let New Orleans make a final decision on the total number of beds in his jail, the councilwoman most involved in pushing for that measure said this afternoon.

Click here to watch Lens reporter Matt Davis discussing this story on the afternoon show with our reporting partners at WVUE-TV.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry said Gusman has stymied a pretrial-services program  by withholding his permission for necessary interviews to happen inside his jail, nor has he given such a program access to his inmate data.  The U.S. Justice Department has provided $500,000 for the program, which would collect data on pre-trial inmates and aim to release them more quickly, if appropriate.

“Let’s just say he [Gusman] hasn’t agreed to hold the interviews in his jail,” Guidry said, when asked whether Gusman was responsible for the delay. “But we’re working on it.”

Gusman, who left the meeting halfway through, did not respond to a request for comment.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman left one hour into a scheduled two-hour meeting of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s jail working group this afternoon, as Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked a question about reforming the system. Photo by Matt Davis

In addition to the $500,000 that the Justice Department has provided to the Vera Institute, a New York-based justice reform organization, the city is prepared to finance the program annually, and it is ready to go apart from Gusman’s hold-up, Guidry said.

Guidry made her remarks after a meeting of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s jail working group, which frustrated jail-reform advocates this afternoon by punting once again on deciding a final number of total beds in the jail complex. The working group was originally charged with making a final decision on the number by November 2010.

The group also received a report from a consultant that the average stay at the city’s jail is getting longer, even as the number of people arrested is falling.

The group agreed today that it doesn’t have enough information to make a decision on the jail size because the effectiveness of a pretrial services program will greatly influence the final number.

The group said the final size of the jail could be anywhere from 1,750 beds, if an effective pretrial services program is instituted, to 3,100 beds — roughly the current number — if it is not. Those numbers were based on figures supplied by the mayor’s consultant, James Austin, who has been paid through a grant from the National Institute of Justice.

Austin also said the only reason a final number of beds cannot be determined  is that the city hasn’t started the pretrial services program.

The City Council approved a 1,438-bed jail for Gusman this spring, and it said he must come back to them for approval if he wants to build another facility. But the group’s lack of decision on a final number today frustrated audience member Norris Henderson with Voice of the Ex-Offender.

“This conversation is supposed to be about 1,438. Here we are, and here we stay,” Henderson said. “When they introduced that ordinance, it was to come to a conclusion about the jail size.”

Henderson said committee members have “lost interest in the process,” and pointed out, reasonably accurately, that today “half of them didn’t even show up.”

Henderson said the District Attorney’s Office, the Criminal District Court, and other committee members had the power to answer the questions before them on bed numbers as well as other issues, but that they were prevaricating.

“We’re not holding people to task,” Henderson said.

Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, who leads the group, also said that a decision on the total number of beds is still off the table.

“We are still addressing that question,” Kopplin said. “We have not come to any final decisions on that point.”

The final number is important because it represents a cap on how much money Gusman can make from housing city prisoners. That’s because the city pays the sheriff $22 a day for each prisoner. Fewer prisoners held for a shorter amount of time results in less money for Gusman’s office.

Critics, including the Inspector General’s Office, say that this payment system gives Gusman a perverse incentive to incarcerate more people and for longer, and Guidry has been among those who have called for an overhaul in the system. Pressed on the issue by a reform advocate about why this system hasn’t been changed this year as she’d hoped,  Guidry responded simply: “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

The City Council enacted reforms in December aimed at reducing the number of people jailed for minor offenses, giving police the option of issuing them a ticket instead.

Gusman has started keeping inmates longer, according to a report given to the committee Wednesday by Austin.  Guidry said she needed to understand why before the group decides on a final jail size.

In the first six months of this year, arrests dropped 28 percent compared to the same period last year, from 47,000 to 34,000. However, Gusman kept inmates for 79 days, on average, in 2009-2010, and that’s jumped to 94 days this year, the data showed.

Kopplin stressed that he thought the longer jail stays were not “because of anything the sheriff has done,” and Gusman thanked him for that remark.

Austin, who has just taken on a $50,000 contract with the city to do ongoing consulting work on this issue, said it’s not clear why the inmates are staying longer in Gusman’s jail. It could be because there are more serious alleged criminals in the jail, now, he said, or it could be because of “inefficiencies” in the system — there is simply no way of knowing without the pretrial services data, he said.

From the audience, activist attorney Tracie Washington told the working group that the city had the power to mandate a lower length of stay without waiting for Austin’s report, or the pretrial services data.

Black people are also continuing to stay in the jail for longer than white people arrested for the same crimes, Austin said: Black people spend an average of 69 days in Gusman’s jail, while white people spend an average of 38 days in jail, according to those figures.

The working group is still supposed to come up with a plan to solve that issue, as well as the lack of mental health services in the city jail.

The total jail population has shrunk by about 300 from 3,342 to 3,061 beds following the closure of Gusman’s South White Street women’s facility, Austin said. That facility was closed following concerns about conditions inside, rather than a change in Gusman’s policy, Austin confirmed.

The New Orleans Coalition for Open Governance recorded the meeting, and a full video will be posted here tomorrow. Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, whose office is currently suing Gusman over jail conditions, also left the meeting early.

The next meeting of the group has not been set.

Update, Oct. 20, 3 p.m.: Click here to watch the full two-hour video of the meeting, shot by Deborah Cotton of the New Orleans Coalition for Open Governance.

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