Dr. James Austin, president of the JFA Institute and a national expert on jails, today told Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Criminal Justice Working Group that the 1,438-bed jail now under construction at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) and slated to open in 2014 will not be enough to meet the city's needs. Austin said that based on current crime, arrest and OPP booking rates, the jail, at maximum capacity, would be more than 100 beds under projected need by 2015. At its ideal operational capacity, it would be nearly 300 short.
"Even under the most optimistic scenario, the Parish will have a prison bed shortfall of approx 250 beds by 2015," Austin's report reads. Austin, who receives monthly population statistics from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, predicts that OPP will be seeing daily averages of about 1,585 inmates by 2015. He said that ideal daily operational capacity for the 1,438-bed jail will be 1,294 inmates, 90 percent of maximum capacity, to avoid overcrowding.
The assessment drew skepticism from several panel members and criticism from members of the audience. Last year, City Council approved OPP's Phase II building at a maximum of 1,438 beds. But a recent investigation by the Lens revealed that city Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin has been in talks with Gusman to add another, 650-bed facility next to Phase II.
Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Ex-Offender, who was in the audience during today's meeting, asked if the 1,438 ordinance truly had "any force of law."
"As with any law, Council is able to revisit that decision," Kopplin responded.
Adding to concerns over increases to the jail size, Austin discussed the possibility of including low-risk convicted state offenders to OPP for reentry programs. Gusman began moving state inmates out of OPP after closing the House of Detention in May. Gusman said today that he transfers about 50 per week to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPS&C). Austin's figures, which were current to June 1, showed 674 convicted state offenders in the jail, which had total population of 2,692 at the time.
Austin's projections, including 250 state inmates, put the total count at 1,835 by 2015.
"Are you recommending that we take state prisoners" for reentry programs, Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked. Austin said that he had spoken with DPS&C Secretary James LeBlanc, who was interested in forming a "partnership" with Orleans Parish, to transfer some locally based inmates nearing the end of their sentences, to OPP to be near their families, theoretically easing the transition into society.
Guidry, however, questioned the wisdom of the idea. She noted that the local jail won't have the same level of resources — to do workforce training, for example — available at state prisons. She worried that inmates would just be "sitting around" at OPP. Guidry said she worried that the state's per diem rate of $24.39 per inmate would be inadequate to cover local government's added costs, such as utilities and personnel. Audience members were also skeptical of the value of putting such a program inside a jail, as opposed to using halfway houses.
Austin said that if the city wants to get the inmate count below the 1,438 cap, it will have to reduce OPP's intake using programs like the Vera Institute of Justice's new pretrial services program. According to Austin's report, Vera has screened 928 defendants since it started in late April. Of those only 3 percent were found to be "high risk," meaning likely to skip their court dates or reoffend if released on their own recognizance or on a low bond. 102 of those screened have been released on their own recognizance, and 118 were given low bonds.
Still, that program won't do it alone, he said. He believes that based on the current rate of releases, pretrial services will reduce the average daily inmate count by about 400 when the pilot program becomes fully operational next year. His estimates, he added, already took that reduction into account.
The real issue, he said, is the arrest rate.
"Yes, that's very important. Anything you can do to lower your crime rate," Austin said.
Guidry said that the New Orleans Police Department had made more than 22,000 arrests by the year's mid-point, compared to 34,000 arrests in all of 2011.
"We're on target to have 10,000 more arrests in 2012," she said.
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas said that officers arrested far fewer people than normal last year. That, he said, resulted from a policy designed to reduce arrests by issuing summonses for most misdemeanors and municipal violations. This year, Serpas said, officers have been granted more discretion as to who they should arrest. He said arrests had increased by 16-18 percent as a result.
Guidry, however, noted that summonses were also up this year.
"Doesn't that mean that crime is up?" she said.
"Or our officers are more proactive," Serpas said.