Recently, the City of New Orleans, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the Department of Justice took a significant step toward creating a safe, secure and constitutional jail by agreeing to appoint an independent compliance director to oversee operations at the jail, including the newly constructed Orleans Justice Center.
Giving an independent third party, answerable only to the court, the power to implement the jail reforms our city desperately needs was both wise and necessary. This compromise is the result of years of often difficult work among the parties, with the court’s guidance, and we should recognize and applaud their efforts and perseverance in reaching this outcome.
The agreement further evinces the city’s and sheriff’s commitment to operational transparency and accountability to taxpayers. It should facilitate increased coordination and collaboration between those offices to provide jail-related services in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
Notably, however, the agreement does not specifically outline a plan for the development and maintenance of additional jail facilities. Rather, it simply mandates further collaboration among the key parties to create a “comprehensive plan” on this topic. Despite this generic treatment in the agreement, it is crucial that developing adequate facilities remains at the forefront of the conversation about constitutionalizing the jail.
In that regard, the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region has long worked with the city administration, sheriff’s office, and other stakeholders to develop a workable, affordable and safe facilities plan. We believe this plan, centered around the following objectives, aligns with the city’s goal to provide constitutional facilities in a fiscally responsible manner:
• Maintain the existing Phase II facility in its 1,438-bed configuration.
• Build a manageably-sized Phase III facility, with approximately 100 - 130 beds, to house special jail populations, including a mental health ward and separate holding areas for juvenile and female prisoners.
• Extend operations and maintenance at the Temporary Detention Center beyond its current shutter date of March 2017 for use as an emergency overflow facility.
• Enter into a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with Plaquemines Parish for use of its 800-bed jail, which remains less than a quarter full, as a longer-term option for overflow and emergencies.
• Explore options for housing low-risk prisoners at the 200-bed McDaniels low security facility.
• Expand the Youth Study Center to allow housing for all youthful offenders apart from the adult population.
The importance of implementing this plan is twofold. First, safely and humanely housing mentally ill prisoners and other special populations requires a separate and appropriately outfitted facility. The current jail cannot effectively house these populations given its maximum capacity of 1,438 beds. Rather, a specialized facility that offers mental health, step-down and infirmary services would better meet the requirements of the Consent Judgment. We cannot achieve a constitutional jail if these populations are ignored.
Second, although BCNO fully supports the city’s efforts to reduce the jail population by reducing violent crime, it would be irresponsible to not plan for unforeseen circumstances. Using the Temporary Detention Center and Plaquemines Parish facilities for overflow, or in the case of an emergency that compromises the current facility, is a low-risk solution to a potentially serious problem and assures that public safety will not be compromised by releasing prisoners due to lack of capacity.
We – BCNO, the city, the sheriff, and the citizens of New Orleans – are all working toward one common goal: increased public safety. Appointing a compliance director is a sign of progress. But we need a comprehensive plan for a right-size, constitutional jail to achieve that goal, and any such plan must include developing and maintaining sufficient jail facilities.
Congratulations to the parties on negotiating this critical agreement. Let’s continue to work together to implement our vision of a safe, secure and constitutional jail.
David Kerstein chairs the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region.
The U.S. Justice Department has offered a blueprint for its proposed takeover of the city’s …