More or less? Jail costs at issue in East Baton Rouge jail proposal _lowres

Advocate file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Unit 2 entrance gate at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

East Baton Rouge Parish could cut its law enforcement costs by at least 20 percent by implementing efficiencies and services such as a new mental health facility and a smaller but more-efficient parish prison, a Chicago-based consultant told city and law enforcement leaders on Wednesday.

On one hand, consultant Stephen Goldsmith seemed to reinforce the ideas laid out in a $335 million law enforcement tax proposal, rejected by the Metro Council in January.

But Goldsmith, who has served as both a district attorney and mayor of Indianapolis also suggested that East Baton Rouge Parish officials should start by carefully reviewing data and assessing the parish’s needs to tailor a law enforcement plan for the parish. He also backed the idea of working with a private company to build a new prison for the parish, as opposed to the mayor’s earlier proposal to issue bonds to be repaid by tax dollars.

Mayor Pro-Tem Chandler Loupe, who facilitated Goldsmith’s meetings with the various officials, said Goldsmith is extremely knowledgeable in this area and his presentation underscores the fact that the tax plan presented to the Metro Council this year was not properly vetted.

“Obviously, if we are still seeking data, asking questions about cost savings, it indicates to me that the prior bond proposal was not complete,” Loupe said.

The Mayor’s Office presented the proposal, which was backed by the district attorney and parish sheriff, to ask voters to approve tax increases to build and staff a new, larger parish prison, a mental health facility, a new juvenile justice center and a new building for the District Attorney and Public Defender offices.

The council seemed largely supportive of initiatives for law enforcement, particularly a mental health facility that leaders said would reduce the number of nonviolent mentally ill people being dropped off in prison. Law enforcement leaders say the facility, which they dubbed the Restoration Center, would act as a safety net for mentally ill people arrested on misdemeanor violations but placed in jail because the parish’s only mental health emergency unit closed with the Earl K. Long hospital in 2013.

The council ultimately decided against putting the proposal on the May ballot, with some expressing concerns about a lack of information and others saying the issue should be presented to voters in the fall when voter turnout is higher.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which introduced and pushed the Restoration Center plans, assembled a team of industry professionals who have since created a design draft of what a mental health center should look like and what services it could offer. BRAF will unveil the design draft for the mental health center at 1 p.m. April 27 at the Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard.

The Huron Group, represented by Goldsmith, has indicated it would like to do work with the city-parish to facilitate the research and financing for the law enforcement infrastructure. Goldsmith said the law enforcement issues need to be addressed comprehensively, and possibly with several new buildings.

He said a mental health facility could not only reduce the number of beds needed in the parish jail, but could greatly reduce the city-parish’s medical costs.

He noted that when mentally ill people are treated in hospitals, those costs are covered by their insurance, Medicaid or Medicare programs. But when they are sent to the prison because of lack of alternatives, the burden of those treatment costs goes to the city-parish.

“There are all sorts of embedded costs,” he said. “Clearly, something needs to be done.”

He also said once the data determines more definitively how many beds could be reduced, a plan for a smaller, more efficiently run jail could be pushed, lowering inmate costs.

Goldsmith also supports public-private partnerships to build prisons.

He said the most successful versions of this model occur when a private company offers to foot the bill for building a new prison, but the Sheriff’s Office continues to staff it.

The city-parish would likely have a 35-year payment agreement with the company to cover the capital costs and, at the end of that time period, would take ownership of the facility.

Officials with the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office have mostly been dismissive of suggestions by council members to explore privatization, based on the premise that private companies would want to staff the prison and would displace sheriff’s deputies who currently guard the jail.

“We’ve never opposed a public-private partnership, but we couldn’t find a private company that would come in and let the sheriff still run it,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden.

Daniel said he disagreed that the tax plan, as presented in January, was hastily conceived, noting that their estimate for a $200 million jail with 900 more beds took into consideration their own estimates for what a mental health facility could offer as far as diverting inmates.

He said the Mayor’s Office is open to what Goldsmith had to say, but said the plan would “still require money over and above what we can currently afford.”

Loupe said another tax proposal to fund law enforcement infrastructure and services isn’t off the table.

“I do envision it coming back in a different form, but in a form we can explain dollar by dollar, the bricks and mortar, the operation costs, and the costs savings that we can explain to the tax payers,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhall buzz/.