A controversial jail budgeting method, in which the city paid the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office a rate of $22.39 per day for each Orleans Parish Prison inmate, will not be used as the basis for the Sheriff’s 2015 budget, city Budget Director Cary Grant told New Orleans City Council members on Monday, the first day of 2015 budget hearings.

The so-called “per diem” approach — which effectively mandates a budget increase for housing more inmates — has been sharply criticized by groups such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. And in 2011, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry called it a “perverse incentive to keep people in jail.” In prior year budget talks, including 2014, Gusman has asked to move to a traditional, preset budget allocation.

For 2015, the city is in fact using a traditional flat budgeted amount. What’s more, officials with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office and the Sheriff’s Office confirmed, the city already stopped using the per diem formula this year.

“It happened,” Guidry told The Lens Monday. “The 2014 budget was the first one for the sheriff that was not per diem.”

However, it’s unclear when or how that happened. The city’s adopted 2014 budget appears to include the per diem funding scheme. And the only media report on the purported change came last summer, in a brief correction earlier this year on how the jail is funded in a NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune article.

According to Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford, the city stopped paying Gusman based on the number of inmates in January, instead paying out 1/24th of his total approved budget twice per month. Per diem funding appeared in the adopted budget because of a court order in a decades-old case.

The per diem rate was set subject to a settlement in a 1969 federal class action lawsuit, Hamilton v. Schiro. It was last increased in 2003. Amid negotiations over funding a federal consent decree over the jail, Sheriff Marlin Gusman in 2012 sought to have the case reopened and the rate increased. He dropped the effort in 2013. U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey, who presided over Hamilton, transferred it to Judge Lance Africk later that year.

Grant told The Lens that the city stopped paying per diems after Africk, who is overseeing the consent decree litigation, told the city to end the system.

The Lens could not find a single order from Africk putting an end to per diem payments or dissolving the Hamilton settlement. Crawford said that no order was issued. Rather, the new arrangement came out of discussions between city officials, the sheriff and Africk.

Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, lead attorney for OPP inmates in the consent decree case, likewise said that Africk never explicitly called for an end to the practice in a published order. But she pointed to several orders that broadly called for a new approach to budgeting, including Africk’s order entering the consent decree. The document calls for a budget approach based on the Sheriff’s needs to meet its terms, an approach that is continued in subsequent court orders on preliminary funding agreements. In an email, Schwartzmann said, “we believe that the City and OPSO have moved away from the per diem system as a result of the Consent Decree and funding orders through Judge Africk.”

Schwartzmann said she could not comment on whether the city is out of compliance with the Hamilton agreement without further analysis.

“What I can say is that I understand the per diem system to be no longer,” she said.

The court has yet to determine a final annual budget figure for the consent decree. Tommie Vassel, who heads up a court-appointed budgetary working group, said per diems are not part of budget negotiations.

“We’re just trying to get to a dollar amount that’s going to be required” to pay for the consent decree, he said.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...