After months of squabbling and disagreement — some behind the scenes, some quite public — the New Orleans City Council and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman have overcome the first roadblock to beginning construction on a new Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). On Feb. 3, the council heard testimony from citizens' groups and voted unanimously to build a new jail with a total of 1,438 beds. That number was supported by the National Institute of Justice and echoed by both the City Planning Commission and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's blue-ribbon working group on the subject. Though Gusman did not attend the Feb. 3 council meeting, he later expressed his satisfaction with the permitting process, saying once again that no time could be wasted in constructing the 1,438-bed jail.
This marked a 180-degree turn from Gusman's earlier positions on the size of the new prison. Though he had demonstrated some flexibility on the subject, as recently as December the sheriff was calling for a 3,200-bed facility. Earlier last year, he struck out at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana — a foe of jail expansion — accusing the group of "demanding an artificially small facility just to satisfy a quest for national comparisons," saying it was "unrealistic and it puts the public's safety at risk."
While the optimum jail size is still open for debate, it's undeniable that the city's incarceration rate has been out of step with that of the rest of America for a very long time. In an unusual arrangement for a city prison, the local jail houses municipal, state and federal prisoners — and is paid for the state and federal prisoners it holds. According to an article by advocacy journalists Seung Hong and Barry Gerharz, when former Sheriff Charles Foti was elected in 1974, the prison had only 800 beds. When Foti left the sheriff's office in early 2004, the prison population had grown almost tenfold. That number was roughly halved after Hurricane Katrina. Still, last fall, OPP held approximately 3,300 prisoners spread across a patchwork of dilapidated facilities surrounding the main prison.
Getting the jail numbers down without sacrificing public safety will take several coordinated approaches, and the process will not always go smoothly. The city has had a huge jail population for a long, long time. Getting that population down to the proper size — and there's no consensus yet as to what that term means — will not happen overnight.
New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas, with the backing of the mayor's office, the City Council and the district attorney's office, has begun giving officers wider latitude when it comes to misdemeanors that used to require immediate arrest. That will help. So will ratcheting down the number of state and federal prisoners at OPP, which would require shipping serious state offenders to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Some have defended keeping state prisoners in New Orleans so their families can more easily keep in touch, but Norris Henderson, an ex-inmate who founded Voice of the Ex-Offender in 2004 (now VOTE-NOLA), says housing them at Angola is actually more humane. Angola has established amenities for long-term incarceration, and prisoners there can visit with their families in person instead of behind glass walls.
Social justice advocates need to remember that the council's decision to build a jail with 1,438 beds represents a minimum, not a maximum jail size. Landrieu has admitted he thinks OPP will need to house more inmates, at least in the near future. We agree. Meanwhile, Landrieu's working group continues to meet. By April, it is expected to issue recommendations on a number of important fronts — including how many state prisoners should be kept at the new OPP. In his Feb. 3 statement, Gusman said, "My office will continue to work with the Mayor's Working Group to determine appropriate future facilities, if any are needed, to replace our old and outdated jails."
Going forward, all elements of the criminal justice system will have to work together — not just to determine the right size of the local jail, but also to improve all elements of the system. The ultimate goal is reducing crime. That's the real answer to the question of how big our city's jail should be.