The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

We’ve all heard how people are sitting out elections because they’ve concluded that the system is broken and their vote doesn’t matter. Runoffs in particular often have spectacularly low turnout. But don’t let that be you when it comes to the runoff election for Orleans Parish Sheriff on December 11.

When it comes to the Sheriff’s Office and its biggest function — running the city’s jail — yes, the system is indeed broken. But that’s precisely why your vote matters.

In a city that has been under dual federal consent decrees for nearly a decade and where corruption remains a constant threat, an election for sheriff might not feel like a big opportunity for change. But, contrary to the cynics, this election could determine whether the city takes a big step in its long, slow, halting path towards good governance, especially when it comes to safety and justice. The cynics go so far as to offer a set of myths to make folks believe reform is out of reach, that the status quo is inevitable. Let’s dispel some of the big ones.

Myth 1: “Phase III is a done deal.” Taxpayers must cough up $180 million over the next ten years to build and operate the jail expansion known as Phase III.

This is the biggest issue separating the candidates, so it’s important to know that this is 100 percent false. The consent decree, brought to resolve years of unconstitutional practices by the Sheriff’s Office, requires adequate care for inmates with serious mental health needs. It does not dictate how the Sheriff — paid for by city taxpayers — must achieve that care. Indeed, the federal court is prohibited by federal law from imposing any particular method that requires the building of a jail. Under the City Charter, only the City Council can authorize the building of a new jail and it has indicated it will not give its approval. The council is poised to approve the Cantrell administration’s alternative plan, which meets the needs of persons with acute mental illness by retrofitting the current jail.

Myth 2: We need more jail beds because people who commit crimes need to be kept away from society.

This age-old falsehood has been trotted out repeatedly since 2011, when the former mayor and City Council rejected the Sheriff’s proposal to build a new jail with 5,800 beds. Since then, we’ve reduced the number of people locked in jail while at the same time reducing crime. In fact, most people in jail are not even suspected of committing serious violent crimes. And with the growing commitment not to lock up people who aren’t a risk to public safety, we have 500 empty beds in the 1,438-bed jail.

Myth 3: We can’t transform conditions at the jail because incarcerating people in harsh conditions is necessary to hold them accountable.

A jail is not a prison; everyone in the jail is legally innocent. This is not simply a legal nicety. Punishing people — harshly or not — before they have been found guilty is a slap in the face to all who believe in the rule of law. In any event, what the current jail leadership has to offer — continuing violence, the prevalence of drugs and weapons, inadequate healthcare during a pandemic, detainees being locked down 23 hours a day — would be inhumane and unlawful punishment even to people convicted of crimes. 

Myth 4: Jail performance isn’t a matter of who’s in office; it’s just a matter of money.

Adequate jail funding is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to ensure a properly run facility. Taxpayers have tripled the city’s funding of the jail over the past 10 years at the same time as community advocates have won changes that have reduced the number of incarcerated people by two-thirds. And the sheriff is now asking for an additional $8 million over what taxpayers spent this year, and nearly $3 million more than Mayor LaToya Cantrell is offering. This huge additional investment has made almost no difference; the jail remains under federal court oversight with no end in sight. Throwing more money at the problem won’t fix it. Better leadership will.

The biggest myth of all is that who is sheriff simply doesn’t matter. Everyone who cares about how their tax dollars are spent, how people with mental illness are treated, or whether our criminal justice system keeps failing (with federal courts continuing to oversee them), should carefully study what both candidates offer and then get out and choose your next sheriff.

Jon Wool is former founding director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans