Update: The hearing was continued until June 24. The city of New Orleans requested the delay, saying it has not received budget documents from Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk has affirmed that conditions at Orleans Parish Prison are unconstitutional and has approved a plaintiff class made up of all current and future inmates.
That settles the first legal dispute, which was the subject of a four-day hearing in April. Now the fight shifts to a more vexing issue: money. How will the consent decree be funded, and by whom?
Starting Monday, the parties to the lawsuit will address those questions with a close look at Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s budget, which has not been subject to this type of inspection before.
The Lens will live-blog the hearing, which starts at 8:30 a.m., below.
The plaintiffs in the case are the inmates, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The defendants are Gusman, jail officials and the city of New Orleans.
All along, money has a part of the legal arguments over jail conditions.
Gusman signed off on the consent decree when it was unveiled last year, but not, he testified in April, because he actually believes the jail is being run unconstitutionally. Rather, Gusman said he hopes the consent decree would bring an influx of funds from the city of New Orleans.
Under state law, the city is responsible for funding jail operations. A separate consent decree sets the city payments at $22.39 per inmate, per day.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration fought against the consent decree, arguing that the expense, combined with the $55 million the city expects to spend on the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree over five year, could force massive layoffs and furloughs.
Arguing that the problem is not funding but management, the city moved for the jail to be taken over by a federal receiver, which Africk did not address in Thursday’s ruling.
Landrieu has repeatedly said the city can’t hand over a “blank check” to a dysfunctional agency that has so far refused to open up its full budget to public scrutiny. Just last year, Gusman reopened the case that set the daily inmate fee so he could request an increase. But his office refused to comply with the city’s discovery requests for its budget.
A report issued this week by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General bolstered the city’s argument, concluding that the jail “appears to be adequately funded, and neither additional money nor financial audits would fix its problems.”
The parties have yet to arrive at a cost to implement the consent decree. In a July 2012 email, Gusman’s attorneys estimated that the reforms could add $22 million to the city’s annual jail allocation, which was budgeted at about $23 million this year.
However, the city’s real costs — including employee benefits, fuel, security contracts and commissions on sheriff’s sales — came closer to $36 million, more than $47 per inmate per day, according to the Inspector General’s report.
While some costs, like a federal court monitor, would be limited to the period in which the decree is actively enforced, others such as increased security and medical staffing could continue indefinitely.
There’s no set time that the consent decree would be in place. The jail must be in “substantial compliance” for two years before it can be lifted.