Sheriff Marlin Gusman

Agreeing that he wants an alternative to the oft-derided price-per-prisoner amount he collects from the city, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman submitted a fixed-cost budget to the City Council today.

Gusman is asking for $37 million for 2013.

That’s not going to happen, city officials said.

The Sheriff’s Office is budgeted for $22.4 million, about $500,000 less than the city provided him in 2012 a figure that reflects a shrinking jail population.

Gusman defended his request during the City Council’s annual budget hearings, which examine spending department by department. Mayor Mitch Landrieu submitted a $491 million spending plan two weeks ago. The council must approve a balanced budget by Dec. 1.

The amount Gusman collects from the city for housing its prisoners is just a portion of his overall proposed budget of $69 million.

Gusman said he needs the additional $14 million from the city to implement  an expected federal consent decree at the Orleans Parish Prison complex.

That decree is hung up over funding issues that the city and Gusman have been unable to resolve.

The city’s proposal, it says, is based on a projected daily prisoner population of 1,950 for 2013, prompting Councilwoman Susan Guidry – an ardent opponent of the per-diem approach to budgeting – to wonder why it had not been dropped, as promised.

That arrangement is set by a decades-old, court-ordered consent decree, explained Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who told Guidry that it was up to Gusman and the federal court to undo the decree.

The city’s $22.4 million budget this year continues the per-prisoner formula that provides Gusman $22.39 per day for every prisoner locked up at the sprawling jail complex.

That’s simply not enough, Gusman told council members.

“It’s critical that you fund the sheriff’s office, to give us a fighting chance,” he said.

The city would not be giving Gusman $37 million even without the per prisoner budget, Kopplin said, adding that the city would like to drop that funding formula moving forward.

Even then, though the city would budget Gusman the same $23 million, Kopplin said.

The city and Gusman have been fighting in court over a federal consent decree under consideration that promises sweeping changes that may mirror some of those recently undertaken at the New Orleans Police Department, to the tune of about $7 million in additional money to implement it starting next year.

Staffing, detainee rights, officer training, the paid detail system are all under consideration.

The consent decree negotiations picked up in earnest two months ago  when the U.S. Department of Justice joined in a lawsuit against Gusman that had been filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this year.

The lawsuit charges Gusman with running a violent, unconstitutional jail.

The Law Center’s Katie Schwartzmann appealed to the City Council to highlight accountability for the Sheriff’s Office, regardless of his budget.

“The jail is, in fact, out of control,” she said. “What are we getting for the money?”

The City Council gave no indication on whether it might attempt to close this $14 million gap. To do so, the council would have to take that money from elsewhere in the budget.

The next conference hearing with parties to the consent-decree lawsuit is Nov. 27.  A special master has been named to help bridge the divide between the city and sheriff.

Criminal District Court

The Monday-morning public hearing on the city’s 2013 budget was an exercise in extremes: On the one hand, Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras sounded the alarm over a $700,000 cut for the court system she oversees. On the other, the New Orleans Museum of Art shrugged off a $16,000 cut and even said it would expand its hours next year.

The Criminal District Court system was clearly the more critical concern. Its budget has been cut by $1.3 million since 2011, about 46 percent. The city’s budget for the court in 2012 was $2.2 million; that would shrink to $1.5 million in 2013 under the city’s proposed budget.

“We never dreamed we’d be looking at a 30 percent cut” this year, Buras said. “I don’t know where we are going to take that cut.”

For perspective on the court’s dwindling resources, Buras urged that the council consider the impact on Criminal District Court when it stopped prosecuting local and state misdemeanors under a policy shift enacted last year by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

Those cases are now steered to Municipal Court, leaving the Criminal District Court docket with higher-profile, time-consuming cases like murders and armed robberies. The loss of the low-level, high-fee cases, said Buras, has had a “tremendous impact on our ability to raise funds.”

However, Municipal Court hasn’t seen an increase in court fees either, Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. That’s partly due to the city’s decision not to arrest people for first-time marijuana possession and instead write tickets, said Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.

Buras also took a shot at city-sponsored reports on the New Orleans criminal justice system by the PFM Group, which have cost the city $90,000.

She said PFM’s second report, focused on the court system, was “fundamentally flawed” in the way it suggested her staff could be better integrated with the Clerk of Court’s staff.

The PFM Group was charged with finding staffing efficiencies, Buras said, but erred in assuming the Criminal Court and Clerk of Court staffs could be merged or otherwise synced up more efficiently.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Museum of Art is being asked to absorb a $16,000 cut in its city budget, from $167,000 in 2012 to $151,000 in 2013.

That’s a fraction of its total annual budget of about $6 million. Most of that comes from contributions from visitors to the museum.

The museum’s roof does continue to leak from Katrina-related damage.

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...