Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has averted an explicit takeover of the city’s jail but has agreed, under the terms of a settlement announced Tuesday, to cede “final authority” over operations of the Orleans Justice Center to an independent administrator who will answer only to a federal judge.
After several days of testimony in federal court on the question of whether a federal receiver should be appointed to run the lockup, Gusman portrayed the settlement as a hard-fought victory that will leave him in charge and remedy long-standing funding woes at the jail. He even suggested that the deal might pave the way for his deputies to receive raises, something he has pushed for in vain.
Gusman insisted the agreement was not an effort to save face as he stared down the barrel of a federal takeover that likely would have rendered him a figurehead for the remainder of his term.
But the deal grants a striking degree of power to an “independent jail compliance director,” an appointed contractor who essentially will become Gusman’s surrogate, taking on tasks as critical as crafting the jail’s budget and submitting it to the City Council.
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The settlement carves out a nominal role for Gusman at the Sheriff’s Office while calling for the compliance director to have final say over jail operations, “including authority over the entire prisoner population.”
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday morning in Lafayette Square, Gusman said the deal would allow him to remain at the helm, even as he welcomed the addition of a new administrator who will be responsible for implementing a comprehensive series of jail reforms mandated by a federal consent decree he signed three years ago.
He bristled at any suggestion that he had agreed to become a sheriff in name only, noting the deal allows him to appoint the compliance director — from a list of nominees submitted by his critics — and to approve a “remedial action plan” that will outline a road map for reducing violence and improving conditions at the jail.
“This is not unlike delegating authority that I do for a lot of the people I work with,” Gusman said. “The compliance director and I will work closely together to move the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office swiftly toward compliance” with the consent decree.
The sheriff told reporters that the compliance director, under the terms of the settlement, “must seek my advice and approval on all decisions related” to the jail reforms.
The agreement itself offers a more qualified description of Gusman’s role, saying the compliance director “shall seek advice and/or approval” from Gusman “unless doing so would cause unreasonable delay.” The document further says the administrator will “regularly inform the sheriff regarding jail operations” but will answer only to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who has overseen the efforts at jail reforms called for in the consent decree.
The sheriff agreed to the settlement several days into a court proceeding that shed new light on conditions at the Orleans Justice Center. Africk was holding an evidentiary hearing to consider a request for a change in jail management brought by city leaders, the U.S. Justice Department and the MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm representing the city’s inmates in a class-action lawsuit.
The government and the plaintiff inmates called expert witnesses who testified about rampant violence and chronic understaffing at the jail, criticisms the sheriff dismissed as outdated or exaggerated.
Gusman had been expected to testify during the proceedings but struck the compromise before he was called to the stand.
In endorsing the settlement, Africk reiterated the need for wholesale changes at the jail, saying, “The Constitution does not mandate a comfortable jail, but neither does it permit an inhumane one.”
“The measures agreed to by the parties are not measures that the court relishes imposing,” Africk said of the settlement, “as this course of action essentially involves the democratically elected sheriff of Orleans Parish relinquishing operational control and final authority for jail operations to the federal judicial branch.”
Gusman said the appointment of the compliance director should ease a long-standing funding dispute between the Sheriff’s Office and the Landrieu administration, which under state law is required to pay for the care of local inmates.
He added that the compliance director would be responsible for developing a jail budget that “must address” pay raises for deputies, a flash point in the fight between City Hall and the Sheriff’s Office.
“This is about us having a direct pipeline to the court,” Gusman said. “This gives us an opportunity to cut through the challenges, the obstructions, the gamesmanship that’s been going on.”
The compliance director will remain on the job until Africk decides that “sustained and sustainable material progress” has been made toward achieving the jail reforms.
Attorneys for the Justice Department, MacArthur Justice Center and Landrieu administration will nominate up to three candidates for the post, with Gusman making the final selection. Africk will be able to reject the appointment.
The director will be paid between $150,000 and $200,000 a year.
Gusman may ask Africk to terminate the “compliance directorship” only after the Sheriff’s Office has achieved “material progress with substantial compliance” toward every provision of the consent decree, and no sooner than nine months after the director is named.
The settlement calls for the compliance director to appear with the sheriff at City Council meetings and to have “exclusive control over all funding sources available ... for jail operations,” including the property taxes Gusman receives from the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District.
The official will also prepare bi-monthly progress reports for the judge and, in an effort to boost transparency, will hold quarterly public meetings with Gusman “to allow access to the compliance director and the sheriff by stakeholders and interested members of the New Orleans community.”
The settlement says the compliance director’s records, like the sheriff’s, will be “subject to public inspection.”
Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of the city’s inmates four years ago, said the compliance director will have “final authority to hire, fire and reassign staff, as well as the final authority to make whatever decisions are necessary to move the jail toward compliance with the consent decree.”
“This change in leadership and the addition of correctional management experience is critical to speeding reform at the jail,” Schwartzmann said in a statement.
Landrieu, who first proposed placing the jail in federal receivership more than three years ago, called the settlement “a major step forward for our city.”
“It’s transformative,” the mayor said. “With this settlement and our ability to move forward with right-sizing and making our jail safer and more secure, our criminal justice system will be undergoing a complete overhaul.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.