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Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Inmates look out onto the Pontchartrain expressway from the new Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans. Oklahoma has overtaken Louisiana as the nation's incarceration leader.

The population of the New Orleans jail has been more than halved since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office eight years ago, and his administration is making a pitch for the next mayor to continue reducing it.

Landrieu’s office released a comprehensive report Tuesday on a dizzying array of initiatives meant to chop away at the jail’s headcount, many of them supported by a $1.5 million grant from a national foundation.

The jail's population, which stood at about 3,400 inmates when Landrieu took office in May 2010, had dwindled to about 1,600 when the city received the grant in 2016. It dropped to an average of 1,427 inmates as of December.

Much of the initial decrease resulted from the fact that state prisoners are no longer being held in New Orleans and from the opening in 2015 of a new main jail building that holds fewer inmates than its predecessors. But city officials believe that their initiatives also have pushed the jail’s headcount down.

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“We have reduced dramatically the prison population, recognizing that having people in jails who don’t need to be there is bad for a whole host of reasons,” said Calvin Johnson, a retired Criminal District Court judge who now serves as criminal justice commissioner for the city.

Landrieu's administration hopes the number of inmates can be cut to 1,277 by mid-2019 if the current initiatives are continued.

Judges are releasing more defendants on their own recognizance instead of making them post bail, more defendants are receiving a second bail review after their first court appearance, and magistrates will soon have a new tool to help them assess the danger of new arrestees, according to the report.

City officials expressed hope that after the grant from the MacArthur Foundation expires in September, Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell will continue the partnership the Landrieu administration has created with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, Criminal District Court, the Orleans Public Defenders and other agencies.

One of the biggest changes spurred by the grant was a project to release more defendants on their own recognizance — without a cash bail — in Magistrate Court, which handles the initial bail setting for felony arrestees.

The city worked with the Criminal District Court judges to develop a protocol for lower-risk defendants. All four magistrate commissioners signed up to participate, but Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell — the new mayor's father-in-law — declined.

Only 29 percent of low-risk defendants received "recognizance bonds" in 2015, but that number had risen to 41 percent of eligible defendants by 2017, according to the report.

An average of 56 percent of “low-risk” defendants now are released within three days, as opposed to 38 percent in 2015.

“We’re starting to get it right. Jail is pre-trial; it’s not pre-punishment,” said Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender for Orleans Parish.

Bunton’s agency used $180,000 from the MacArthur grant to place two additional attorneys in Magistrate Court. Those lawyers have focused in particular on asking magistrates to reconsider initial bail settings. The percentage of the eligible inmate population that receives a second shot at lower bail has gone up from 24 percent to 34 percent, according to the report.

Another change is in the offing for Magistrate Court. Starting in the summer, Judge Cantrell and the commissioners will have access to a new tool from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to gauge how likely defendants are to be arrested again if they are released.

The tool’s "risk score" is meant to guide judges as they set bail amounts. They are not, however, bound by its indication of a defendant’s potential danger to society.

Meanwhile, other agencies beyond the courts have participated in the project to reduce the jail population. The Sheriff’s Office created a new position to identify inmates who fall through the cracks of the justice system and may end up spending weeks behind bars just because their paperwork is mislaid.

The city has worked with the state Office of Probation and Parole to ensure that defendants picked up on probation violations get court hearings fast.

The Sheriff’s Office and parole initiatives have not borne fruit yet. The average time behind bars for a defendant with paperwork problems or other tricky issues has increased from 33 days to 50 days, and the number of people in the jail on alleged probation and parole violations has risen from 188 to 212.

Johnson, who was a judge for 17 years until his retirement in 2008, acknowledged that the reduction in the jail population is fragile. Some city leaders could try to reverse course if one defendant who is released early commits a horrible crime, he acknowledged.

But Johnson said the fact that every Criminal District Court judge signed on for changes like the recognizance bond protocol shows that attitudes toward incarceration have shifted since he was a judge.

“If you want a community that everyone can live in and thrive in, then we have to recognize that criminal justice must change in how it operates,” he said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432