By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Councilwoman Susan Guidry criticized Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration Tuesday for failing to change the way it pays for inmates housed at the city’s jail.

Guidry’s displeasure came out as the council continued its review of Landrieu’s proposed 2012 budget. The hearing Tuesday reviewed the budgets of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, Municipal Court, and Criminal District Court.

National experts have slammed the payment method for city prisoners, which pays the sheriff $22.39 a day for every person he holds. Critics say this gives Sheriff Marlin Gusman a reason to keep prisoners. Reform advocates say that community-based rehabilitation programs and a smaller jail would be more effective at reducing rampant crime in New Orleans.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his staff face questions from Councilwoman Susan Guidry (on screen, right) at a Tuesday budget hearing. Photo by Matt Davis

Guidry slammed the administration for failing to make any headway on the payment issue over the past 12 months, even though Gusman said he was open to changing the system at last year’s budget hearing. He said then that he was open to negotiating  a fixed budget for his office.

“I’m surprised that the administration has had a year to do this and we still don’t have a fixed budget,” Guidry said. “This is a perverse incentive to keep people in jail. It’s wrong, it’s not a healthy thing to do and we have had a whole year since the last budget. I don’t want another year to go by without us dealing with this.”

Guidry’s criticism prompted Landrieu’s budget director, Cary Grant, to say that a fixed payment system for Gusman is still “a goal of the Landrieu administration.”

So, Guidry asked him, how many people did he have working on the issue today?

“Today we probably have fewer people working on that than we should,” Grant admitted.

Rebecca Glover, an activist from the group Safe Streets, Strong Communities, was one of several audience members holding up a sign protesting the so-called “per diem” payment system, which reimburses the sheriff on a per-prisoner, per-day basis. Photo by Matt Davis

The Lens also sought comment from Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin in response to Guidry’s criticism, and Kopplin said that the administration has continued its discussions with Gusman and a federal judge who supervises the agreement, with a view to ending the daily rate.

“But it requires all sides to be of an agreement,” Kopplin said. “And at present we don’t yet have that agreement.”

Kopplin declined to discuss specifics, say what is causing the disagreement or give a timeline for a likely resolution. The Landrieu administration appears wary of offending Gusman publicly, as it continues to be locked in delicate negotiations with him over the size of a new jail facility, and other aspects of criminal-justice reform.

Guidry appears less inclined to walk on eggshells, however. And Tuesday’s show of frustration was the second time in as many weeks that the councilwoman has aired her feelings about the slow pace of criminal justice reform. She lashed out at Gusman after a meeting of Landrieu’s jail working group on Oct. 19 for blocking a pretrial services program that could potentially release inmates awaiting trial, based on a series of tests to determine whether they would be a threat to the community.

Guidry began the budget hearing Tuesday calling for a spirit of innovation in criminal-justice reform, having just come from a news conference with Landrieu discussing a bloody Halloween night. A spate of gun violence  killed two men  and injured 14 people across the city, including a fatality in the French Quarter.

“We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again, and expect different results,” Guidry said.

New Orleans’ daily rate per inmate 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, asking that the city pay the Sheriff’s Office sufficient money to maintain constitutional conditions.

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 payment system.

ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman drove home the point Tuesday, appearing at the budget hearing to tell the council it had the power to end the per day payment arrangement today, if it chose.

Landrieu has proposed increasing the allocation for Gusman slightly, from $22.5 million this year to $22.7 million. The city has also funneled more than a million dollars to Gusman over the past year in separate no-bid contracts, about which the Landrieu administration has said little.

Gusman also drew fire Tuesday for failing to disclose the amount of commission he earns from sales of property. His office merged with the civil sheriff’s office last year and took over sheriff’s sales, in which the city auctions properties to settle debts stemming from tax delinquencies, court-ordered foreclosures or code enforcement.

Gusman said he has been using some of that commission to support jail operations, but admitted that the revenues weren’t reflected in the budget he handed to the city when he made his budget request. He also said that the city should be paying all of his jail costs, and that he did not feel he should have to supplement his jail operations with money from the sheriff’s sales.

Guidry suggested that Gusman might not need as much money from the city if he is making so much extra money from sheriff’s sales, but that can’t be determined without Gusman being open with his budget. It was not the first time the opacity of Gusman’s budget has been remarked upon.

Gusman told her the city’s legal responsibility is to pay for the upkeep of the jail.

“I’m just telling you, that’s the law,” Gusman said. “It’s the parish’s responsibility to take care of the inmates. Now, change the statute, change the law. But that’s the law.”

Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens said he was frustrated his budget is being cut this year, from $2.8 million to $2.5 million, particularly when his budget request to the city included line items for much-needed mental-health and substance-abuse workers.

“We need a million dollars more, not half a million dollars less,” Sens repeatedly said. “It really is a case of pay me now, or pay me later, when it comes to mental-health and substance-abuse issues.”

Councilwoman Stacy Head expressed concern that her constituents are calling about mentally ill people continuing to show up on the streets, which Sens attributed to the state’s ongoing defunding of the mental health system. Nevertheless, Head did not pledge to restore the mental health or substance abuse lines to the municipal court budget, encouraging Sens, instead, to drop off a few people experiencing mental health crises “on the governor’s lawn.”

Criminal District Court judges faced a series of questions about the openness of the court’s budgeting, including pointed questions about why they continue to withhold records that would show whether judges have been using their judicial expense fund to pay for supplemental life and health insurance benefits. That accusation is being investigated by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell at the request of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro because it appears to contravene state law forbidding judges from deriving personal benefit from fees levied in their courts.

Chief Judge Terry Alarcon, who is retiring at the end of the year, told the council that his fellow judges have threatened to sue him if he releases the records because it might be possible to tell from them which judges have certain health conditions. He also said that anyone seeking the records is welcome to sue the court if they feel its position on withholding the records is wrong.

Guidry also asked Alarcon and his colleagues about a recent article at The Lens, which drew attention to an audit showing the court is sitting on about $300,000 that it was supposed to pay to crime victims.

Alarcon said his office is trying to work out the logistics of paying the money.

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