Coalition urges mayor to 'man up' and fulfill promises on jail size and budget reforms

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Jail reform coalition member Norris Henderson hands a 2,200-signature petition to Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s chief of staff, Deborah Langhoff, at City Hall this afternoon. Photo by Matt Davis.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

A reform coalition, calling for a smaller, more accountably budgeted jail, dropped off two copies of a 2,200-signature petition at City Hall this afternoon, having grown impatient with Mayor Mitch Landrieu for failing to “man up” on the issue.

“I think the mayor just needs to step up,” said Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition member Norris Henderson, who also runs the reform group Voice of The Ex-Offender. “Like the commercial said, he needs to ‘man up’.”

Henderson made his remarks at a press conference on the steps of City Hall two days before the City Council is scheduled to approve the city’s budget. Henderson said the coalition was trying again this morning to capture the city’s attention on the issue after reading remarks by Councilwoman Stacy Head encouraging more citizen involvement in the budget process. Head, as first reported by The Lens, said she has been disappointed by the lack of public engagement on the city’s budget.

The coalition is calling for two major policy commitments from the city: to cap the size of the new jail at 1,438 beds; and to reject Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s budget projections. Gusman continues to base his budget on  per-prisoner, per-day revenue assumptions. The coalition wants a fixed budget based on performance measures.

So far the city has not made a commitment on the jail-size issue and has yet to honor a year-old commitment on budgeting reform, despite indications from Gusman that he would be open to the idea.

“The city said it was going to budget for outcomes,” Henderson said. “It needs to do just that.”

Landrieu convened a jail working group last September and charged it with deciding on a final size for the new facility by November 2010, but the group punted as tensions grew between Landrieu and Gusman.

At a budget hearing earlier this month, Guidry criticized Landrieu’s administration for failing to move away from the per diem jail financing. National experts slam the $22.39 per diem, calling it an incentive for Gusman to maximize the city’s already record-breaking incarceration rate. With jails seen as a factory for creating career criminals, community-based rehabilitation programs and a smaller jail would be more effective strategies for reducing rampant crime in New Orleans, critics contend.

The coalition asked for a response from Landrieu and the council before Thursday and said it plans to attend the council budget vote, regardless, to make its voice heard about the jail.

Landrieu was unavailable to receive his copy of the petition this afternoon and his Communications Director Devonna Dolliole and spokesman Ryan Berni brushed off a reporter’s requests to comment on the petition.

The reform coalition had also hoped to deliver a copy of its petition to Council President Jackie Clarkson but nobody in her office answered the telephone, so Henderson gave a copy to Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s chief of staff, Deborah Langhoff.

Langhoff said she would deliver the petition to the council. Clarkson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment except to say that the councilwoman was in a meeting.

The reform coalition, whose 30 member organizations include the National Lawyers Guild, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has previously rented billboard space near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and taken out a full page advertisement in The Times-Picayune newspaper to publicize its cause.

“The cover that the mayor needs is there,” Henderson said. “The political cover.”

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