City Hall still using controversial per-diem approach to jail budget

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Tom Gogola

Calling the information "security-sensitive," a spokesman for the contractor has refused to release documentation explaining what Major Services actually does for Orleans Parish Prison.

Per-diem budgeting is criticized as an incentive for Sheriff Marlin Gusman to keep the Orleans Parish Prison population as high as possible. photo: Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola

The controversial “per diem” budget for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is alive and well, despite assurances by top city officials that they would come up with a better approach to financing the city jail ahead of the 2013 budgeting season.

Released Monday, the mayor’s budget proposal includes $22,434,338 for the sheriff, a cut of $500,000 from the 2012 allocation.

Ryan Berni, speaking for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the budget is “based on the current per diem of $22.39 per day,” and on an estimated daily average of 1,950 inmates for 2013.

“We feel confident that this is a reasonable amount to budget because the sheriff is running more than $700,000 below the 2012 budget in terms of his invoices, because of lower jail populations than had been predicted,” Berni said, pegging the current jail population at 1,791 inmates.

Berni said the city had no choice but to go with the old budgeting formula, at least for now.

“The Mayor has said consistently that the city is willing to move away from the per-diem approach and give the sheriff a fixed budget instead of a per diem,” Berni said, adding that Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer, told the City Council again on Monday that “this offer remains on the table.”

Under the per-diem approach, the sheriff charges the city a per day, per prisoner fee. An alternative is to allocate the sheriff a lump sum as a line item in the city budget and require him to manage expenses accordingly.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry has been the driving force on the council seeking to end the per-diem budget, which was set up under a decades-old consent decree designed, in part, to ensure a constitutionally appropriate prisoner-to-guard ratio at Orleans Parish Prison.

Guidry has called the per-diem budget a “perverse incentive” to lock people up for as long as possible to maximize payments to the sheriff.

Guidry declined to comment for this story.

“Because the council received this information only yesterday, the councilmember and staff are still reviewing the material,” Deborah Langhoff, Guidry’s chief of staff, said.

For now, Berni said, the city’s hands are tied. “Because the per diem was determined in federal court some years ago, it cannot be ended without agreement from the sheriff and approval from the court,” he said.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman is in protracted negotiations over a consent decree proposed by the federal government to remedy unconstitutional conditions at the jail complex. A secondary dispute pits him against the city; Gusman has asked for millions more than his 2012 allocation to begin implementing aspects of the consent decree having to do, in part, with chronic understaffing at the jail.

With the city refusing to write Gusman what it calls a “blank check,” a special master has been appointed to arbitrate the matter.

The delay occurs amid a steady drumbeat of complaints of unconstitutional conditions at the prison.

Gusman was not immediately available for comment.

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