On Monday evening, nearly five months after defeating long-time incumbent Marlin Gusman in a runoff election, Susan Hutson was inaugurated as Orleans Parish Sheriff, making her the first female Sheriff in the city’s history and the first Black woman sheriff elected in the state of Louisiana.
Hutson, who ran as a self-styled “progressive sheriff,” has promised to provide better care to people locked inside the long-troubled jail and work with others in the criminal justice system to roll back the policies that lead to mass incarceration.
Hutson was joined on stage at the Fillmore theater by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams and Criminal District Court Judges Nandi Campbell and Angel Harris, among others. Harris, who became the first person to unseat an incumbent Criminal Court judge in Orleans Parish since the 1970s when she was elected in 2020, officiated at the swearing-in ceremony.
“It’s going to be a hard road ahead,” Hutson said on Monday. “We have to stay in this fight to make the changes we all want to see in our community. We want true public safety for everyone, not just a few.”
Hutson, a lawyer, spent much of her career in criminal justice reform, working on police oversight in Los Angeles, California, and Austin, Texas. And beginning in 2010, she served as the city’s Independent Police Monitor, a civilian police oversight agency created in 2008 as a reform measure for the troubled New Orleans Police Department, which itself had come under post-Katrina scrutiny from the federal government following reports of violent police abuse, including the killing of Henry Glover and the Danziger Bridge shootings.
“It wasn’t a job, it was a mission,” she said of her time working on police oversight.
In the office, she scrutinized the department’s policies and practices, took complaints from civilians and issued reports on police shootings. She stepped down from the job last year after announcing her run for the Sheriff’s Office.
Williams, who won office in 2020 running on a progressive platform, said during a speech at the ceremony on Monday that he backed Hutson because of that experience.
“When I endorsed Susan Hutson for sheriff, I did so because we shared a commitment to ushering in a new era of justice and reform in the city of New Orleans, and in the Deep South,” he said. “A new era that would actually be rooted in fairness.”
‘Some have died or suffered while in custody’
Gusman held the office for nearly two decades prior to Hutson’s inauguration on Monday. First elected in 2004, Gusman was able to mostly avoid any serious electoral challenges in his subsequent re-election campaigns until the one against Hutson earlier this year, facing a runoff only once in 2014 against former Sheriff Charles Foti. Gusman won handily, with 67 percent of the vote.
Nonetheless, his tenure was filled with controversy over jail conditions, lack of adequate medical and mental health care at the facility, and in-custody deaths.
Just months after taking office, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. While the city issued a mandatory evacuation order, Gusman chose to leave the jail full. At the time, there were upwards of 6,000 people incarcerated in the facility. The jail took on water along with much of the rest of the city, and according to accounts of people who were locked up, they were abandoned by guards and left in the flooded facility with little access to food or water. Some reported being beaten and maced by the deputies who remained.
In addition, much of the sprawling jail complex that had steadily grown under Gusman’s predecessor, Sheriff Charles Foti, was badly damaged or destroyed.
The following years would bring about sweeping changes to jails operation and oversight. After a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found unconstitutional conditions at the jail, civil rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Gusman in 2012 seeking to force reforms. They were joined by the DOJ as a co-plaintiff, eventually leading to a federal consent decree that is still in effect. The past decade has also seen the construction of a brand new, smaller jail to replace the sprawling Orleans Parish Prison complex, and the inmate population, spurred by the city government and criminal justice advocacy groups, decreased from about 3,000 in mid-2012 to fewer than 900 today.
While Gusman often maintained that he was in favor of a “smaller, safer jail,” he also was frequently at odds with reform groups and elected officials who were working to reduce the jail population and footprint — a dynamic that played out for the duration of his time in office.
He also regularly butted heads with the other parties to the consent decree litigation, along with the monitors appointed by the federal judge to oversee conditions in the jail and track the compliance of the Sheriff’s Office in implementing the mandates of the agreement. In 2016, the DOJ and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated at the jail accused him of being “incapable” of implementing the reforms required to bring the conditions at the jail up to constitutional standards. Gusman begrudgingly agreed to hand over day-to-day operations of the jail to a court appointed “independent compliance monitor,” who had direct control over the jail until 2020.
Last year, after monitors said that conditions at the jail had “backslid” since their prior report, Gusman accused them of having unreasonable expectations for the facility and said they were attempting to create a “jail utopia.”
Hutson, on the other hand, has promised to work closely with the monitors to bring the jail into full compliance with the consent decree within 12 months of taking office.
Among the primary challenges according to jail monitors, is that the facility is chronically understaffed. To address the issue, Hutson says that she plans to raise starting deputy pay to $20 an hour, ramp up recruitment efforts, and She also said she plans on reassess staffing deployment to make sure the over 700 employees of the office are being utilized in the most effective way possible.
She also said she will reassess top-level personnel to make sure they align with the vision of the office. Last month, she announced several new leadership hires, including bringing on her campaign chair, Deborah Chapman, as a senior advisor.
But Hutson will take office already unable to immediately fulfill one of her major campaign promises, and is fighting a steep uphill battle in federal court to follow through on another.
A harsh critic of the jail’s private healthcare provider, the Nashville based-Wellpath, Hutson promised to tear-up their contract when she took office. But in reality, she doesn’t have that authority. The contract is handled by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, and just last month a purchasing selection committee chose to stick with Wellpath rather than go with a proposal put forward by LSU’s Health Sciences Center. The contract will be good for one year, with the option of renewing for an additional four.
Hutson also promised to oppose the construction of a controversial 89-bed mental health and medical facility on the jail campus, known as Phase III, that the city has been ordered to move forward with by the federal judge presiding over the consent decree.
Attorneys for the city are appealing that order. But in an appeals hearing this year, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit appeared highly skeptical of arguments against construction presented by both attorneys for the city and those representing Hutson. In an interview after the hearing, Hutson acknowledged that it had not gone well. “It was brutal,” she said.
Still, on Monday vowed that it would be a new era at the jail under her watch.
“Members of our community — our loved ones — some have died or suffered while in custody,” Hutson said. “I view this as our chance to reset that system that hurt people. … We have a chance to get it right.”