Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group will meet Monday at City Hall for the first time since Oct. 19.

The meeting will feature testimony from James Austin, President of the JFA Institute, a national prison-research think tank that has been advising city leaders about prison issues since 2010.  The meeting is scheduled for 1:30 in the eighth-floor Homeland Security conference room.

Austin was included in previous working group meetings that hashed out plans for a new, FEMA-funded, 1,438-bed jail now under construction along Interstate 10.

That lockup is also known as the “Phase II” building.

Phase I is the nearly complete kitchen and warehouse facility that also lies along I-10.

A city-owned lot between the buildings has been identified by The Lens as the possible location for an additional Phase III jail that would eclipse the 1,438 figure by up to 650 additional beds.

Austin is scheduled to give an update on jail population projections at Orleans Parish Prison, according to a city-posted agenda available on its website. This would be the third time Austin’s organization has revised its projections.

The last projections were submitted to the working group in October. The institute offered a pair of charts comparing 10-year prisoner population forecasts for Orleans Parish.

One chart is a policy simulation that anticipates the arrival and impact of the Vera Institute for Justice’s pretrial services program, and also assumes a reduction in the number of State Department of Corrections inmates doing time at Orleans Parish Prison.

That chart concludes that over the next eight years, with those two factors included in the number-crunching, the average daily inmate count at Orleans Parish Prison would be 1,753.

The other chart doesn’t include those mitigating factors and anticipated a daily prisoner count of 3,120 over the same period.

Under either projection, the jail under construction is coming up short by a minimum of about 300 beds.

The bed count at the Phase II jail was capped by city ordinance at 1,438. The ordinance also mandates that all other lockups in the Orleans Parish Prison system be decommissioned or destroyed when the new jail comes on-line in 2014. The city law also gives Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman up to 18 months to close the FEMA-funded Temporary Detention Center.

The sprawling Mid-City jail complex was already shrinking in size and population before the working group last met on Oct. 19.

The pace of change has quickened since then. In the intervening months, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman closed the decrepit House of Detention to inmates. About 400 state prisoners serving time there were transferred to other Louisiana facilities. That left the prison complex with about 2,600 inmates per day, Gusman said recently

Citing deplorable conditions, in March, U.S. Marshals removed all federal prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison. The jail had averaged about 100 federal inmates a day, according to the JFA Institute population charts.

In late April, the Vera Institute also started its pretrial diversion program.

City officials and criminal-justice advocates are hopeful that Vera’s screening process will ease the strain on Orleans Parish Prison by helping judges make determinations that would divert low-level offenders from jail.

Vera’s New Orleans Director, Jon Wool, said he had been speaking with Austin in advance of the Monday meeting. Austin did not return calls for comment.

Stressing that his data is drawn from a short time frame and a limited pool of about 1,000 arrestees, Wool said, “Of those that we are assessing, we are seeing about 30 percent released at or near their first appearance.”

Two-thirds of those released are let go without having to pay a monetary bond. The remaining third “has to pay $325 or less to get out,” Wool said. “That should give you a sense, but we’re a long way from understanding how many jail beds are saved every day,” by the Vera Institute’s work, he said.

Other jail-bed savings may accrue, said Wool, if the Vera program expands to include a larger group of arrestees than it currently assesses. Vera is only assessing about 55 percent of felony arrestees, he said, and nobody who is charged with a state misdemeanor.

Wool echoed an argument prevalent among criminal-justice activists opposed to additional jail facilities: The 1,438 figure was supposed to include every class of criminal, absent those with severe mental illness.

According to FEMA, the 1,438 figure represents the total number of inmates who were housed at two lockups that previously stood on the lot and were damaged in Katrina-related flooding.

Under FEMA guidelines, new construction must essentially replicate whatever came before it, said Marc Ehrhardt, a spokesman for Gusman with the Ehrhardt Group public relations company.

The Mayor’s Criminal Justice Working Group first met in early 2010 and has held about a half-dozen meetings since then. It was charged with determining an optimal size for the Orleans Parish Prison by November 2010; it has yet to do so.

The Phase III documents for 650 new beds include 256 beds dedicated to prisoners completing state terms in a local re-entry program.

The Austin population chart anticipates an average of 200 state prisoners per year at Orleans Parish Prison through 2020.

Additional beds in the Phase III plan are devoted to severely mentally ill arrestees and prisoners requiring medical attention, and other special-needs populations.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin is chairman of the Criminal Justice Working Group. Councilwoman Susan Guidry is also a member. She said she was unaware of discussion about a Phase III jail until The Lens brought it to her attention.

Guidry is hosting the last of her mid-year Criminal Justice and Budget Committee combined meetings on Wednesday, two days after the working group meets.

Criminal-justice activists who have been demanding that the city stick to the 1,438 figure will be attending the meeting to remind Gusman and other city leaders of the cap.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...