In her first press conference since defeating long-time Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman in the December runoff election, Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson on Wednesday pledged that her administration will bring the city’s jail into full compliance with a long-running consent decree, which has kept the Sheriff’s Office under federal court supervision since 2013.
“Since election day, my team and I have been assessing the state of the Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “The needs are urgent. But first and foremost is the federal consent decree. … I’m already doing things today that will lay the groundwork for success with the federal consent decree.”
Hutson has met with Gusman once since her election, she said. As she gets closer to her May inauguration, she plans to meet frequently with him or top members of his staff to prepare. She has also sent an extensive public records request to his office, asking for all available records — including contracts, email communications and written orders — on everything from staffing to financial management to inmate deaths to food service management.
Gusman’s office has not yet provided the responsive records to the request — which was submitted just last week — his general counsel, Blake Arcuri, confirmed Wednesday. It is being reviewed by a contracted law firm. Arcuri said he would provide the firm’s response to The Lens when it is available.
In the meantime, Hutson is working with her transition team — chaired by Loyola University law professor Andrea Armstrong, Foundation For Louisiana CEO Flozell Daniels and retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson — on plans to work more closely with the city government, recruit more deputies and improve mental health care at the jail, one of the areas in the consent decree where the Sheriff’s Office has for years struggled with compliance.
Periodic reports by a team of jail monitors, appointed by the federal court as part of the consent decree, have expressed growing alarm at a lack of private, individual therapy sessions and limited group sessions for detainees, many of whom have substance abuse or other mental health issues. Hutson said she would immediately prioritize more security staff to supervise detainees with mental health needs.
“I will provide the necessary security to get incarcerated persons to and from their mental health visits. This is a critical need. The monitors have written about it. And it is solely the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “And we will not be able to comply with the consent decree until we discharge this basic function.”
In her campaign, Hutson, former city Independent Police Monitor, aligned herself with local progressive criminal justice reform groups that have long opposed an expansion of the jail’s footprint. And her plans for improved care will not include support for a proposed 89-bed medical and mental healthcare facility, known as Phase III.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell is opposed to the building, shutting down work on it for months in 2020. But early last year, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk — who is presiding over the consent decree — ordered her administration to build it, pursuant to a commitment made to the court and the other parties to the consent by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2017.
The other parties, including Gusman, a group of civil rights attorneys representing jail detainees and the U.S. Department of Justice, all support the construction of Phase III.
Cantrell’s administration has appealed the order. And a majority of the City Council this week signalled plans to file an amicus brief in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in opposition to the building. Hutson also plans to file a brief in opposition.
“We have a majority new City Council. And they, like me, have been empowered to represent the voters’ interests and the voters’ concerns,” she said. “And the voters overwhelmingly spoke and said they do not want Phase III.”
Instead, she said, city voters prefer an alternative plan favored by Cantrell and the council: a retrofit of part of the jail to serve as a medical and mental healthcare unit.
Hutson provided reporters with a letter she wrote this week to City Attorney Donesia Turner expressing her support for the city’s retrofit plan, saying that it would provide better single-cell accommodations for detainees with acute and subacute needs, could be completed more quickly than the $50-million-plus Phase III and, unlike Phase III, would not require the chronically understaffed jail to hire more than 100 additional deputies to run.
CEA with city
The letter to Turner concludes with a brief mention of another one of Hutson’s plans: inking a cooperative endeavor agreement — a legally binding contract — with the city of New Orleans, which funds the Sheriff’s Office, setting the terms of the relationship and responsibilities of the two agencies.
Hutson said the CEA would likely be a multiyear agreement. Under city law, that means it will require approval from the City Council as well as Cantrell. Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the plan.
She suggested that as part of that agreement, she will seek guarantees from the city on her administration’s annual budget, though she did not provide details on exactly what she will be asking for.
“We just need to sit down and get some certainty to that,” she said. “Be transparent about what we need. We are in a reform period. We have to make great changes to what goes on at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in order to comply with the consent decree and bring it back to local control.”
“We want certainty in funding, absolutely,” she said.
Budget negotiations for the Sheriff’s Office are often contentious. City Council members and Hutson have criticized the office for what they have characterized as a lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to its contracting practices.
During Gusman’s 2022 budget hearing — about a month before the runoff election that would decide the sheriff’s race — Hutson appeared before the City Council to demand more information from Gusman about how much his administration is paying for legal services contracts, which have run into the millions in past years.
The proposed CEA will guarantee her office provides that type of information to the city, Hutson said Wednesday. The city typically posts such agreements on its purchasing website, so the document itself should be an easily available public record.
“I want to be transparent with them about the data and the metrics that they need to see that the taxpayers’ money is going to programs and operations that the taxpayers want it to,” she said.
Nick Chrastil contributed to this report.