New Orleans City Council members lined up their arguments Tuesday against Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s plan to build a new facility to house inmates with special needs, pushing their own plan to renovate the jail building now under construction to hold those inmates and holding firm on their opposition to increasing the overall capacity of the future Orleans Parish Prison.
Gusman and the city are wrangling over the size of the jail in two courts. A federal judge is overseeing implementation of a consent decree requiring improved conditions at the jail, while a Civil District Court judge is overseeing a separate case in which the city argues Gusman has violated the ordinance authorizing the new 1,438-bed jail because it cannot accommodate all types of inmates.
The city last week issued a stop-work order to halt construction of the nearly completed jail, but that was put on hold by the judge.
A hearing in the latter case was supposed to be held Wednesday, but it was delayed until next week after a flurry of last-minute motions.
The renovations sought by the city would have a wing for women with mental health or medical issues as well as four wings dedicated to men with specific levels of mental and medical health needs, council members were told Tuesday during a meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. A sixth wing would be set aside for additional special needs inmates, and there also would be about a dozen beds to treat inmates at the University Medical Center, which is expected to open next month.
Those changes would reduce the number of people that could be housed at the jail from 1,438 to 1,292, including the beds at the hospital, because fewer people could be housed in the modified wings than in traditional dorms or cells.
Shrinking the size of the inmate population — which is now about 1,760 — would be accomplished through a variety of policy changes, including efforts to speed up the rate at which inmates move through the system before a trial, programs to allow some offenders to remain on supervised release until their trial and ending the practice of housing about 400 state prisoners at the local jail.
If population trends at the jail continue, its population could be down to about 1,200 inmates in 2018, said James Austin, a jail expert hired by the city.
The programs to reduce the jail population would be done with public safety in mind and would focus on small-time offenders who do not pose a threat, city officials said.
“We’re talking about people who don’t belong in the jail pretrial, and if they stay in the jail, they’re more likely to become career criminals,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.
The city estimates the total cost of the renovations at about $7 million. Austin said they would take about a year to complete.
Gusman has pushed for a new building that could cost up to $85 million to house the special needs populations.
Sheriff’s Office officials did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, and Gusman said in a news release Monday night that it would be improper to discuss the lawsuit with the committee while the Civil District Court case is ongoing.
Guidry dismissed that reasoning.
“There’s no law that says you can’t talk about litigation while you’re in litigation. As a matter of fact, we have a judge that has asked us to be more active,” she said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.