Criminal Justice

The Gusman mess: Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we pick our sheriffs

Sheriff Marlin Gusman

Sheriff Marlin Gusman

Louisiana is not alone in electing sheriffs. In the 50 states, very few jurisdictions appoint them.

Why? On paper, at least — sheriffs are the top figures in local law enforcement. The other two branches of government, the executive and the legislative, are elected. A sheriff should be no less subject to the will of voters than mayors and City Council members. Or so it is argued.

Recent developments suggest we need to revisit that thinking.

For one thing, the sheriff of Orleans Parish doesn’t really have much to do with the majesty of the law, its interpretation or even its enforcement. Along with certain bureaucratic functions inherited from the days when we had two sheriffs — evictions, for example — the sheriff of Orleans Parish is primarily an administrator. He runs a jail.

But not very well, as we have discovered the hard way with Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

This week’s de facto ouster of Gusman from control of the jail is, obviously, a victory for common sense and for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Also for the feds, who, goaded by a lawsuit, first ordered Gusman to clean up a facility lost to violence and mismanagement. When that didn’t happen, they insisted he turn the jail over to someone who actually knows how to run one.

Stripped naked in scathing federal reports, Gusman was handed a fig leaf: he will get to pick the jail’s overlord, but he will do so from a list of three professionals prepared by the feds, City Hall and the MacArthur Justice Center, the nonprofit that sued Gusman for unacceptable jailhouse conditions.

Once again, as happened repeatedly during the Civil Rights era, the federal government has had to ride to the defense of a Southern constituency — inmates in this instance — subject to abuse of their constitutional rights by a member of the local elite.

Educated at Wharton, smart and personable, Gusman made a fine chief administrative officer under Mayor Marc Morial. But his prowess balancing revenue and outlays at City Hall hasn’t carried over to the handling of jail finances. And when it comes to every other aspect of running the lockup or hiring staff able to do it for him, Gusman has been, very simply, a disaster.

Tuesday, as we learned that Gusman was being sidelined, former Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin, was indicted for public corruption, adding another name to the list of Gusman cronies caught up in sweetheart contracts or outright graft.

What seems clear in hindsight was also the view of the political class back when Gusman threw his hat in the ring for sheriff after a brief tenure as a City Council member. He wanted the job not because he had any instinct for prison management or jurisprudence, but because, in the absence of term limits, it looked like a lifetime political sinecure, a way to stay on the public payroll more or less as long as he wanted.

That kind of job security was the lesson from the 30-year reign of Gusman’s predecessor, Sheriff Charles Foti. Foti was no prize himself as a jailer but almost certainly would be sheriff to this day if he, like Gusman, had not reached for higher office — in Foti’s case, state attorney general — and quickly demonstrated that he was in way over his head.

With his Ivy League pedigree and well-cut suits, Gusman would be a natural fit as a corporate executive or managing partner in an accounting firm. He’d be making better money; he might even keep better company, if his corporate peers helped shield him from the sleazeballs who apparently see the sheriff as an easy mark.

The feds are circulating a help-wanted ad as the search begins for someone to clean up the mess at OPP. To scan the minimum requirements listed on the ad is to realize that Gusman would not have been considered for the post back when he first ran for sheriff. More damning still: he never seemed to grasp how badly he needed someone like that on his staff.

Despite repeated warnings, jailhouse deaths, gang violence and inmate escapes, Gusman failed to make the hire, fearing perhaps that if he put someone in charge who actually knew how to do the job, his control would be diminished, his cronies cut off.

Hiring a skilled professional to run the jail will free Gusman, now a figurehead, to devote himself to an Orleans sheriff’s paramount role, which is getting re-elected. This mission involves the usual exchange of political favors, including a fair amount of free turkey for nursing home residents and construction of a popular haunted house in City Park at Halloween, another holdover from the Foti years.

So, should we remove the sheriff’s office from the ballot and make it an appointed post? Is there any more reason to elect the parish jailer than the department heads who who fix the streets, collect garbage and run the police force? Or is there some virtue in keeping the post a separate center of political gravity, one that inspires dreams of lifetime employment and requires the incumbent to fret ceaselessly about any erosion of his power.

The irony is that though they are appointive posts, high-profile jobs like police chief and pot-hole czar are more sensitive to public opinion than a sheriff who commands a separate base of political support undergirded by an army of 800 deputies and employees whose paychecks depend on his favor. Mayors last only two terms at most — and if they pick bad police chiefs, not even that long.

There is wisdom in the constitutional tradition that balances executive, legislative and judicial power against each other. But let’s remember that even at the federal level, where the judicial branch of government is about much more than running a jail, the top dogs — Supreme Court justices — are appointed, not elected.

Needless to say, the parish jailer should not be appointed for life, however keen his yen for job security. Like a police chief, he should serve at the will of the mayor who hires him.

Books by Jed Horne include “Desire Street,” about prosecutorial misconduct in the handling of a New Orleans murder case.  

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