The New Orleans City Council is backing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s calls to bring local inmates awaiting trial back to Orleans Parish Prison and send state Department of Corrections prisoners who already have been sentenced to other facilities.
But Thursday’s 5-2 vote on a resolution condemning Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s decision to send more than 200 pretrial detainees to jails in northeast Louisiana showed for the first time that some council members are leaning toward Gusman’s position in the ongoing fight over OPP.
The City Council “strongly condemns the transfer of any local pretrial inmates in order to accommodate the continued housing of state DOC inmates,” the resolution says. “Such an outcome comes at great financial cost, while endangering compliance with the costly and burdensome OPP consent judgment, and flouting the very purpose for the construction of the new Phase II jail facility — the housing of local, pretrial detainees.”
James Williams, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, fired back Friday, accusing the Landrieu administration and the council of neglecting public safety and the needs of inmates.
“The city’s track record with the New Orleans Police Department becomes more evident each day,” Williams said. “As criminals continue to wander the streets without fear, the city and the City Council try to manipulate numbers to reach arbitrary inmate statistics. What’s worse, they act without any regard to doing what it takes to keep people out of jail and give them a chance at a productive life.”
The council, which has generally backed the mayor in his various fights with Gusman over the proper size of the jail and issues dealing with its budget, divided on this resolution, with Councilman Jared Brossett and Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey voting against it.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who heads the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said at Thursday’s meeting that there is no good reason to continue holding 331 state inmates at OPP, which has a total population of about 1,800, and accused Gusman of using those prisoners to swell the numbers to justify building another jail facility in addition to the $150 million, 1,438-bed jail that just opened.
Gusman transferred 250 inmates to jails in Franklin and East Carroll parishes early last month, a move that drew swift criticism from the administration, as well as from defense attorneys who suddenly found their clients hundreds of miles away. Some of the inmates have since returned.
“Most are being defended by public defenders who don’t have the resources to travel way up north,” Guidry said.
City officials have focused on three arguments against housing Department of Corrections inmates at OPP:
They add to the amount the city must pay to run the jail, because the average cost of housing them is expected to be almost $113 per day next year and the state pays only $26.
Local, pretrial inmates should be the priority for the jail because that’s its primary purpose and those inmates have not yet been convicted and need access to their local lawyers.
Housing those who have already been convicted artificially boosts the number of those incarcerated at the jail, which provides justification for Gusman’s controversial plan to build another expensive lockup.
The city is responsible for paying for local prisoners at OPP but cannot set limits on the Sheriff’s Office budget for the jail, an issue that has prompted a series of skirmishes between the two sides.
Williams said the state inmates are largely either awaiting transfers to other facilities, have been sent to OPP to stand trial for other crimes or are involved in re-entry programs as they near the end of their sentences.
Brossett said after the meeting he wasn’t convinced the numbers the administration is using add up, particularly when one factors in potential cost savings such as using state inmates to prepare food at the jail, an argument Gusman has made during the ongoing debate.
He said the existence of re-entry programs to reintegrate inmates into the community, which account for about 130 of the state inmates, also factored into his vote.
That effort also played a significant part in the defense of the situation offered by Williams, the sheriff’s attorney.
Many of the state prisoners are in the local jail “as they complete their sentences and work to return to the community from where they came — Orleans Parish,” Williams said. “These inmates are trying to get their lives in order, learn a trade and rebuild relationships with their families in Orleans Parish — all so they do not return to jail. The council seems to be joining the Mayor’s Office in tossing these individuals away.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.