The Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group, is supporting Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s bid to build a new multimillion-dollar jail in New Orleans, saying the additional facility will be needed to forestall a public safety crisis even after the completion of a 1,438-bed lockup due to open in a few months.

A lack of jail space could force local authorities to release dangerous criminals or pay out-of-parish facilities to detain them while they await trial, the commission says in a report being published Wednesday.

The commission, wading into an acrimonious debate between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, calls for a total jail capacity of between 2,300 and 2,500 beds to accommodate the city’s average daily population of 2,100 inmates. The report warns that “reduced demand for jail space over the coming years appears unlikely as the city endeavors to hire hundreds more police officers.”

“Politically restricting the size of the jail may be the fiscally popular thing to do and may cost, at least at first glance, less money,” Rafael Goyeneche, the president’s commission, said in an interview. “But what’s going to be the cost of the increased crime that will result from having to release hundreds of felons back out into the community?”

The commission’s recommendation, Goyeneche said, would maintain the existing inmate capacity in New Orleans after the opening of the new 1,438-bed jail, which under a city ordinance will trigger the eventual closing of Orleans Parish Prison’s entire dilapidated campus.

The new jail is scheduled to open at the beginning of 2015 after many months of delays, and city officials have said the Temporary Detention Center, a 500-bed facility built after Hurricane Katrina, may remain open for up to 18 months after that as an overflow building.

Seeking to dispel any notion that OPP contains few dangerous felons, the crime commission analyzed New Orleans’ inmate population over the first half of 2014 and found that about 73 percent of detainees faced pending felony charges. It said 37 percent faced “violent felony and felony weapons charges,” the most common category of offense among pre-trial detainees.

By contrast, the commission said an average of only 146 inmates, or 7 percent, were behind bars because of a pending traffic, misdemeanor or municipal charge. Those inmates spent an average of 27 days at OPP, compared with an average 219 days for felony pretrial inmates.

“You have people who have called the jail a misdemeanor motel or a marijuana motel, and the numbers in this report, I think, confirm that it’s not that,” Goyeneche said. “This is a felony pretrial holding facility.”

The report comes on the heels of a City Council resolution, passed last week, in which six council members opposed Gusman’s plan to construct a so-called Phase III jail and urged him instead to reduce the prison’s population by transferring several hundred state prisoners and Plaquemines Parish inmates out of OPP.

Of the Department of Corrections prisoners at the jail, the report said, an average of 227 had pending charges compared with 219 who had no pending charges. Of the latter group, 60 were awaiting a transfer to state prison and 160 were participating in re-entry, work-release or community service programs.

In a statement, Landrieu said the city needs a “right-sized jail that is large enough to constitutionally house all required prisoners, but no more.”

“New Orleans is the world’s prison capital — the most incarcerated city, within the most incarcerated state, within the most incarcerated country in the world,” Landrieu said. “Unfortunately, the old, over-sized, poorly managed and dilapidated OPP complex has too often been part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said her organization strongly supports a cap of 1,438 inmate beds. She said the jail could release “with no risk to public safety” the 148 inmates the crime commission identified as being held on felony drug possession charges, among other nonviolent offenders.

“The real question is why we have nonviolent offenders incarcerated in the first place,” Esman said. “If we reserved our jail for the people who truly pose a threat to the community, rather than nonviolent offenders or people who are simply too poor to post bail, we would certainly be well served by a smaller jail.”

Gusman spokesman Philip Stelly said only that the crime commission’s report “should be evaluated on its own merit.”

To view the full report, go to www.metrocrime.org.

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