As Louisiana’s regular legislative session begins, all eyes are on the state’s criminal justice policy, particularly the $26-million appropriations bill aimed at implementing stricter crime-prevention measures. 

We live in this community and see public safety as a priority within our city and state — and within the Orleans Justice Center. Yet, some of the special session’s new laws created unfunded mandates for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Without resources, it will be difficult for us to effectively implement the new laws, while maintaining safer jails for incarcerated people and our dedicated staff. 

Specifically, the legislation that lowers, from 18 to 17, the age of people who must be housed in adult jails, combined with measures that close off parole and early release opportunities will result in a ballooning jail population. 

As the Sheriff of Orleans Parish, I have been working with our deputies and community partners to address chronic understaffing, capacity limits, and Consent Decree mandates at the Orleans Justice Center (OJC). 

We are deeply concerned that an influx of youth detainees will only exacerbate these challenges and stop the momentum of the positive work we are doing to address these issues. For example, 17-year-olds must be separated by sight and sound from adult detainees according to federal standards, including the Prison Rape Elimination Act. This means segregated facilities with separate male and female youth pods, as well as single cells.

Nearly every weekday, OJC will now be required to shut down while youth are being moved and transported to and from court, increasing the burden on staff for transport and direct supervision in the court-holding areas, where youth also must be held separately. 

This legislation  — and those federal standards — will also adversely impact medical and mental health services and education, which state law requires be provided for any school-aged persons in our facility. 

Anyone who is 17 will not be allowed to attend school with older students currently attending classes at the Travis Hill School operating inside the OJC, and staff would need to make other accommodations to meet their needs. These young people require specialized care and support and we cannot adequately provide for them with our exhausted resources, particularly staff.

Additionally, the passage of other measures during the special session, coupled with the deployment of a new Louisiana State Police unit, will likely lead to a surge in the population at OJC, which reached 1,187 this week. This not only undermines our community’s long-time demand to cap the facility’s capacity, but also raises serious questions about our deputy to resident ratio. Although we recruited 100 people last year, we — like all jails across Louisiana — are challenged with a staffing shortage, and this will be an added burden. 

It costs approximately $47,513 — in staff time, medical care, food, and clothing — to house one detainee for a year at the Orleans Justice Center, which is $10,000 more than the base salary of $37,440 paid to the deputies entrusted with their care. It costs even more to house youth, who come with increased dietary and security requirements. With an expected influx of 30 youth offenders to the OJC, OPSO faces an estimated $1.5 million bill and no way to pay it.

We have been advocating for wage increases to attract more talent but the current state budget and our city appropriation does not provide for additional resources for staffing or programs. Yet, we are being tasked with housing more people including youth who have greater security needs. The outcome will be a recycling of people into the system, back to the streets without preparation to be successful, and continued crime and victimization of our community.

As sheriff, I have spoken with the New Orleans legislative delegation, asking for help in addressing these pressing concerns by allotting increased funding for OPSO, to recruit and retain necessary staff. We are also asking city officials to deal with these concerns in the city’s next budget cycle, including the possibility of building out our facilities to house young people separately.

It’s essential to consider the broader implications of these policy decisions. We cannot afford to overlook the impact on our communities, particularly the young people and the hard-working staff who will be directly affected by these changes. By working collaboratively, we can ensure that our criminal justice system upholds the principles of fairness, accountability, and safety for all.