Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has struck a deal that will stave off a federal takeover of the city’s jail, finding common ground with the U.S. Justice Department and inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the city’s lockup.
Terms of the deal, reached after several days of negotiations, will not be made public until a federal court hearing Tuesday morning. But several sources familiar with the compromise said it calls for the hiring of a high-ranking official who will not supplant Gusman at the helm of the Sheriff’s Office but will be tasked with implementing a series of reforms at the beleaguered Orleans Justice Center.
The vast majority of the reforms, spelled out in a 2013 federal consent decree, remain unfilled despite three years of federal supervision.
Corrections experts have described the situation at the understaffed jail as a crisis — one so dire that hundreds of inmates have been relocated indefinitely to jails in other parts of the state.
Deputies have not been in control of the 9-month-old facility in recent months, the experts told a federal judge, as evidenced by the prevalence of jailhouse violence.
While not formally pulling rank over the sheriff, the new official is expected to play a critical role in financial decisions for the jail and in crafting the sheriff’s budget — a major sticking point between Gusman and City Hall.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which under state law is required to pay for the care of local inmates, has accused the sheriff of reckless spending and incompetent management, and it has refused to approve raises he says are necessary to hire and retain enough guards.
The official’s appointment will have to be approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who has overseen the litigation since it was filed more than four years ago.
“Something has to change. There has to be someone else involved other than the sheriff and the city,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, an organization that has closely followed the situation at the jail. “If a deal has been reached, you better believe it won’t be full-blown receivership with the sheriff on the outside looking in, because he wouldn’t agree to that. This has to be some hybrid, some modification of that.”
Gusman did not comment on the settlement Monday but called a news conference for Tuesday morning in Lafayette Square. The Sheriff’s Office issued a statement saying the sheriff will be accompanied by a group of local ministers and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
Sources familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deal had not been announced Monday, described the compromise as a face-saving maneuver for Gusman, who for the past two months has faced the humiliating prospect of being stripped of his main elective duties.
The settlement was struck after a week of discussions that began several days into an unusual court proceeding at which attorneys for the federal government and the MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm representing the city’s inmates, argued that Gusman lacks the leadership and know-how to improve conditions at the jail.
Experts testified about repeated inmate-on-inmate attacks at the jail, as the government and plaintiffs sought to portray the sheriff as aloof and incapable of cleaning up the facility.
Gusman, who had been expected to testify during the hearing, called several witnesses who insisted the Sheriff’s Office has made progress and that the experts’ criticisms were exaggerated and outdated.
The hearing had been scheduled to resume Tuesday morning, but Africk canceled that proceeding and scheduled a status conference in its place.
Africk, who has been reluctant to micromanage the reforms at the jail but insistent that they take place, appeared eager to endorse a compromise among the parties. At least for the time being, the deal allows the judge to avoid having to decide whether to sideline the sheriff and appoint a so-called receiver to manage operations at the jail.
The bid for a receivership, begun in April by the Justice Department and the plaintiff inmates’ attorneys, was an extremely rare legal action that placed the judge in an unenviable — and locally unprecedented — position. Critics of the request described it as “de facto disenfranchisement” of a community that overwhelmingly re-elected Gusman a little more than two years ago.
“Finding common ground was always the best possible outcome,” U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond said in a statement Monday. “Continuing a long and costly receivership process would have been harmful to the Sheriff’s Office and the city as a whole. Now that both sides have reached an agreement, the focus can shift back to ensuring that conditions at the Orleans Justice Center are compliant with the requirements of the consent decree.”
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