Orleans jail

The Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

A national foundation has announced that it will give New Orleans $2 million more over the next two years to support a variety of initiatives meant to reduce its jail population.

The MacArthur Foundation grant was revealed as the city’s long-running effort to trim the number of inmates has come under new fire from Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, but city leaders say they are not backing down.

Instead, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration hopes to reduce the jail population by another 200 people — to under 1,000 inmates — sometime next year.

Despite his fervid critique of the jail downsizing as an ill-conceived “social experiment,” Cannizzaro’s office stands to receive roughly $300,000 of the latest grant.

An upsurge in crime or pushback from other public officials could imperil the plan. Yet Tenisha Stevens, the city’s criminal justice commissioner, insisted the city’s ambitious goal can be reached by 2020.

“We are confident we can get to that mark,” she said.

The latest cash infusion adds to the $1.5 million the city has received from the MacArthur Foundation since 2015. The foundation, which opposes high incarceration rates, is handing out $166 million to dozens of cities in an effort to cut local jail populations.

New Orleans has used its money on a mathematical tool to gauge the risk that recent arrestees would pose upon release, follow-up bail reviews for inmates who linger in jail and a project to release more inmates on their own recognizance.

The result has been a remarkable drop in the inmate ranks of a city that had more than 3,300 people behind bars in 2010. The total Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office population at all locations on Friday was 1,191 inmates — a decline of almost two-thirds.

City officials say that further reductions will come by targeting populations that pose little risk to public safety upon release, like people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Stevens noted that in the midst of the push last year to reduce the jail's population, the city reached its lowest homicide tally since 1971.

Shootings were also down 30 percent compared to the year before, and armed robberies dropped by 12 percent.

“Crime is down,” said Stevens. “At the same time … we’re making sure people are not being held in jail when they can safely be released.”

Those arguments have not swayed Cannizzaro, who took partial credit for the homicide drop while ripping into incarceration reduction efforts at a Wednesday luncheon hosted by the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Cannizzaro called over-incarceration a “myth” and noted that most people in the city jail are accused of violent offenses.

“I absolutely want to see fewer people locked up in New Orleans and throughout our state,” he said. “But we must get there because fewer people are committing crimes, not because of some grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naïve politicians.”

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Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro speaks to New Orleans Job Corps students at the Youth 2 Youth: Partners 4 Peace rally in Mid-City in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. The Y2Y event by New Orleans Jobs Corps promotes anti-violence initiatives and coincides with United Nations' International Day of Peace.

Despite the harsh words, Cannizzaro, who has long complained of budget shortfalls at his agency, will be a major benefactor of the MacArthur money.

His office will receive roughly $300,000 to hire three more diversion counselors. Those counselors guide arrestees through a process where those accused of minor crimes can eventually have their record wiped clean if they stay out of trouble.

A Cannizzaro spokesman did not directly address whether there’s a contradiction in taking a cut of the grant while lambasting its larger goal.

“Our diversion program has provided second chances to more than 4,800 arrestees in the past 10 years, and we are pleased with any supplemental funding from the city to help us expand its scope,” said Ken Daley.

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Tenisha Stevens announces she accepts the role as the Criminal Justice Commissioner during mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell announcement of public safety leaders for the new administration at the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center in New Orleans, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. Cantrell has not chosen someone to take the role of Director of Public Safety & Homeland Security.

Stevens said that while she found the district attorney’s stance “puzzling,” she’s taking a pragmatic approach to relations with his office. She worked as an investigator there from 2003 to 2017.

“We have to engage, and we have to include all of our criminal justice partners. At the end of the day the DA is the top law enforcement (official) for the city, so he needs to be at the table with us making decisions,” she said.

Over the next two years, the city also plans to undertake a variety of other efforts to reduce the jail population.

Another $300,000 will go toward a community advisory group and public education.

Stevens' office will prod the New Orleans Police Department to write police reports more quickly, which would allow prosecutors to evaluate whether and how to charge suspects before they have sat in jail for longer than necessary.

The city will also continue a pilot project in the French Quarter and Central Business District called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which gives officers the discretion to send people accused of minor crimes to social workers instead of jail.

The project, which was launched in November 2017, is aimed at people who cycle in and out of jail, including the homeless, the mentally ill or those with substance abuse problems.

“It’s a small sample size, and it’s too early to really make statistical claims, but we have seen that frequency (of arrest) decrease,” said Shelbi Flynn, a senior project manager in Stevens’ office.

She added that the program is changing minds in agencies like the NOPD and City Attorney’s Office.

“It’s helping people rethink the way they approach jail and mental health and substance use disorders, and that’s ultimately what we want,” she said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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