The $270 Million Lockup: Will New Orleans' Sheriff Stand in the Way of Rebuilding a Smaller and Smarter Orleans Parish Prison?

New Orleans' incarceration rate is the highest in the country — the city locks up three times more people than the national average. The city jail, Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), holds nearly 3,200 prisoners and remains the largest per-capita jail in the nation. But Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman wants to use hundreds of millions of dollars in post-Katrina Federal Emergency Management Adminstration (FEMA) reconstruction funds to make it even bigger.

One has to wonder why.

Rushing to jail as may people as possible comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers at a time when municipalities across the nation, including New Orleans, face mounting budget deficits. And locking people up, especially for low-level, nonviolent crimes, has never been shown to have any impact on public safety. Indeed, investing in alternatives to incarceration, like treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, can make us all safer by helping people to become rehabilitated, productive members of society while avoiding the destabilizing impact incarceration can have on individuals, families and entire communities.

The sheriff's proposed expansion contradicts the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Working Group, a special commission that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu appointed to identify an appropriate future size for the jail. On November 22, 2010, the working group recommended (over the sheriff's dissent) that the city authorize construction of a smaller, 1,438-bed jail and demolish the existing jail buildings.

The working group's recommendations rely on a report they commissioned from corrections expert James Austin. Austin's report found that the city would need fewer than 1,500 beds if the city implements five criminal justice reforms that local advocates and other experts have long endorsed. These reforms include setting up a pretrial services agency that could effectively supervise many men and women before their criminal trials who otherwise would languish behind bars, reducing the number of state inmates held at OPP, increasing the use of police summonses instead of immediate arrests, increasing efficiency in the processing of judicial dockets and reducing the length of jail stays for probation violators.

Austin's findings are consistent with our own experience, which is that many people arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses are being held unnecessarily at OPP while they await trial. Additionally, a substantial number are being imprisoned because they couldn't afford to pay court-imposed fines and fees. (See our recent report, In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons for more on this issue.)

But Sheriff Gusman insists that he needs at least 3,200 beds, and perhaps as many as 5,800 beds, to meet his future needs. So, what accounts for the fourfold difference between the expert's projection and the sheriff's projection of his future detention needs?

To help answer that, we sent a public records request asking the sheriff for the evidence supporting his prediction. In response, admitted that he never conducted any study, report or other objective evaluation. Instead, the sheriff relied on his "institutional knowledge and experience" to come up with the number, and did not use "any particular data compilations" as the basis for it. In other words, he pulled it out of thin air.

What the sheriff didn't add is that some unusual budgeting practices give him an incentive to build a larger-than-necessary jail. Instead of getting a normal budget, OPP is funded almost entirely by per diem payments from the state and the city for each prisoner held there. So while the sheriff publicly denies that this motivates his demands, that financial incentive makes it hardly surprising that the sheriff's estimates are much higher than the expert's.

Yesterday, the City Council embraced the evidence-based projections, voting unanimously to decommission the old buildings and cap the new jail at 1,438 beds. This is a promising sign that New Orleans can relinquish its position as the overincarceration capital of the world to become a national leader in criminal justice reform.

But Sheriff Gusman may still stand in the way. The week before the vote, Sheriff Gusman sent a letter to the council stating that he would be "unable to comply" with these limitations, and new revelations suggest that he may be able to build another jail on a neighboring lot without city approval. In the coming months, the ACLU will continue fighting to make our vision of a better, smaller and smarter OPP — a vision now shared with the City Council — a reality. Stay tuned!

Learn more about overincarceration and criminal justice reform: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and friend us on Facebook.

Sign Up for Breaking News