James Austin told criminal justice leaders Monday that shrinking its jail means expanding the Vera Institute's pretrial diversion program, run out of OPP's Intake and Processing Center. Photo by Tom Gogola

The prisoner projections don’t bode well for criminal-justice activists intent on holding city officials to their earlier cap of 1,438 beds in the Orleans Parish Prison complex.

That was the message from prison expert James Austin on Monday during a rare meeting of the Mayor’s Working Group on Criminal Justice at City Hall.

The afternoon meeting featured the third and latest round of prisoner projections from Austin, a national prison-issues expert who has been advising the city since 2010.

Austin’s lowest projections show that Orleans Parish Prison would be short by at least “several hundred beds” through 2020.

Panel Chairman Andy Kopplin, who is also the city’s chief administrative officer, said the cap isn’t necessarily hard and fast.

“As with any law, the council has the ability to revisit” the jail-bed issue, Kopplin said.

Austin’s work is based primarily on two factors that Austin acknowledges can’t be accurately projected: The results of a new pretrial diversion program  by the Vera Institute for Justice, and a drop in the number of State Department of Corrections inmates doing the last months of state time in parish-run re-entry programs at the Orleans Parish Prison.

The bed-gap, Austin said, could be between 250 to 600 by 2020.

“The real uncertain thing, Andy, is how fast can you ramp up that pretrial services program,” Austin said.

The Vera Institute’s  New Orleans director, Jon Wool, told The Lens last week that it was too soon for his data to be extrapolated. The program is also limited in the scope of arrestees it is evaluating, which Vera hopes to expand with more money from City Hall. That program is now assessing less than just over half of the felony arrestees and none of the arrestees brought on state misdemeanor charges.

Correction, Aug. 14: Wool said the program is assessing about 55 percent of those arrested for felonies.

Austin said his lowest projection anticipates the Vera program will expand to include a risk assessment of violent offenders as well.

Austin further noted that the 1,438 jail-bed cap shouldn’t be equated with a prisoner count because best practices dictate 85 percent to 95 percent capacity. His models assume 90 percent occupancy.

So while there will be 1,438 available beds by 2014, when the new, FEMA-funded jail under construction along Interstate 10 is completed, Austin said the city shouldn’t be locking up any more than 1,294 people.

Austin’s lowest 2014 estimate is that 1,600 people will be locked up.

The reasons for capping the inmate count at 1,294 are varied, but one main driver is prisoner segregation and crowding, Austin said. The more crowded the prison, the less flexibility staff has to segregate various populations from one another.

About 2,600 are people locked up in a sprawling complex of jail facilities that can hold up to 2,691, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman said recently, while noting that “we are at the tipping point.”

Gusman sent Kopplin a proposal for a new facility this spring that would appear to solve the imminent bed crunch –   but which has been met by intense opposition by community activists and others in the criminal-justice community intent on keeping the lid on the jail beds under Gusman’s control.

In June, The Lens reported on a new jail that would house up to 650 additional prisoners, which would be located between the kitchen-warehouse facility and the jail under construction. Both buildings are funded by FEMA, and the proposed building would also be built with federal money. The Times-Picayune reported today that the city has up to $22 million in FEMA money that could go toward the construction of the new lockup.

Gusman started with a 750-bed proposal but whittled it down to 650, and then told Kopplin he could get it down to 600 by focusing on medical and mental health bed reductions.

Kopplin avoided substantive discussion of the new facility at Monday’s meeting.

“We can argue about how many beds will be needed,” he said, but suggested that in the meantime “we figure out re-entry – and do we want to do it?”

Gusman told the working group Monday that about 220 state prisoners are in re-entry programs at the jail.

The proposed new lockup would offer 256 beds for state prisoner re-entry.

Kopplin told a crowd during an April community meeting that he would be willing to go over the 1,438 cap to accommodate re-entry programs.

The ordinance that permitted construction of the 1,438-bed facility anticipated that the facility would be used to house all prisoners, except those with acute mental illness.

The ordinance requires Gusman to close most other facilities when the new lockup opens, and it gives him another 18 months to close a 400-bed temporary facility that opened this year.

Another factor complicating Austin’s estimate is the see-sawing between arresting people and issuing summonses that has bedeviled the New Orleans Police Department in recent years.

Austin noted early in his presentation that arrests have spiked this year by about 10,000. Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas  acknowledged that police are arresting many more people this year, compared with 2011 when they issued summonses more frequently.

Serpas told the dozen or so working group members present that beat officers had taken a 2011 general directive about using their discretion too far, leading to a significant dip in the number of arrests last year.

This year, he said, the higher arrest rate is reflecting the department’s clearer guidelines.  Serpas said discretion has given way to officers being “more proactive this year than last year in making arrests.”

Austin said that New Orleans “still has a higher crime rate than most major cities,” and also pointed out that it also arrests more people than most cities.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the Feds sue you if you have an overcrowded jail.”

Gusman has been talking with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice about a possible consent decree, a court-ordered plan for making changes at the complex.

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...