Gusman: 2,200 beds; Kopplin says 1,700
“The council is in the position it’s in because it failed to recognize what really needed to happen.” Marlin gusman, Orleans Parish sheriff
When Sheriff Marlin Gusman appeared Thursday morning before the New Orleans City Council for his second grilling in less than a week, the conversation quickly drifted back to the years-old, hotly debated question of how big a jail the city really needs.
The council has less than a month to decide how much the city will spend in 2014 for court-ordered reforms at Gusman’s jail, widely considered one of America’s most brutal and overpopulated penitentiaries.
Orleans Parish Prison houses around 2,500 inmates, several times the national per-capita average for a city the size of New Orleans.
A prison expert hired by the city told the council Thursday that the only way to pay for the price of the jail reforms mandated by a federal court settlement is to drastically reduce the prison’s population.
The one thing most parties agree on is that the number of inmates must get smaller. But just how much smaller, and how the prison population spiraled out of control in the first place, remains in debate.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, seemed to grow increasingly annoyed that all the criminal justice agencies that have appeared before the council during budget hearings in recent days have failed to acknowledge their roles in the problem.
“In each case, they pointed somewhere else. Or at least they said, ‘Not me,’ ” she told Gusman, in prodding him to accept his portion of responsibility. He declined to do so.
Andy Kopplin, the mayor’s chief administrative officer, also encouraged the council to demand more explanation from the criminal justice agencies.
“We have a system, and it’s incumbent upon all the parties in that system — the police, the sheriff and the court, the mayor and the council — to try to come up with what is the right answer for the system,” he said. “We should not look at the world the way it is and say, ‘That’s fine.’ We should look at the world the way it should be, and figure out how to get there.”
More than two years ago, Guidry and the rest of the council passed an ordinance that limited the city’s new prison, now under construction near Perdido Street, to 1,438 beds, a drastic reduction but still twice the national average.
The law said the new jail should be able to accommodate all varieties of prisoners, including the mentally ill and young offenders who must be kept out of the general prison population. That law was recently aborted. The jail Gusman is now building includes only 60-man tiers. It has no suicide-watch cells, no laundry, no infirmary, no small tiers for special populations.
“And that’s why we’re having to deal with the issues we’re having to deal with right now,” Guidry said.
Gusman turned the blame back on the council.
“The council is in the position it’s in because it failed to recognize what really needed to happen,” he said. “And that’s why we’re in this position right now. Not because of anything I did.”
He maintains that his jail plan was adequate, but some council members, along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have said that Gusman flouted the law and left them with no option but to build another building, with additional beds for more prisoners.
Exactly how many additional beds remains uncertain.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell asked Gusman and Kopplin on Thursday for a bottom line on the total number of beds needed.
Gusman, who has always wanted a far bigger jail, said 2,200.
Kopplin said fewer than 1,700.
“The negotiations (with Gusman) are ongoing, but it’s nowhere close to 2,200,” Kopplin said.
Guidry read from a breakdown of the prison’s 2,500 inmates, and ordered that Gusman find places to cut: more than 150 inmates awaiting trial on municipal misdemeanors, 1,500 awaiting trial on felony charges, hundreds of state prisoners farmed out to the city jail by the state Department of Corrections.
“We are talking about a culture of incarceration that we have here that is outrageous by any standard compared to anywhere else in the world,” Councilman James Gray said.
“Yes, we have crime; yes we have public safety issues, but we also have far too many people locked up who don’t need to be locked up. And all the experts tell us that the more we lock up, not the safer we are, but the more at risk we are.”
An expert hired by the city put the ideal jail size at 1,600 beds.
David Eichenthal, a prison expert who crunched the numbers for the administration, told the council that reducing the inmate population is the most important ingredient in paying for the reforms, which are expected to cost many millions of dollars.
Landrieu has offered Gusman $22.1 million in the city’s proposed 2014 budget. Gusman has asked for $36.2 million, including more than $11 million to implement the reforms.
Eichenthal said, however, that if the population is reduced to 1,600 and the sheriff implements other cost-saving measures — like turning over some administrative functions to City Hall — the consent decree might cost the city just over $2 million.
In the end, the council will likely have to decide how much to allot the sheriff for next year without knowing how big his prison will be.
He is scheduled to appear before the council one more time before the budget is finalized on Nov. 21.