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New Orleans Sheriff, up for re-election, wants $4.2M more for OPSO 2022 budget

Orleans Justice Center
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Orleans Justice Center

After delaying budget talks with the City Council for several days, the Sheriff of Orleans Parish presented his office's budget proposal for the 2022 budget, coming in at $4.2 million more than Mayor LaToya Cantrell allotted for the office.

Initially scheduled for last week, Sheriff Marlin Gusman proposed to the board a $77.5 million budget for the upcoming year and argued for the controversial Phase III expansion of the jail to be built.

Public commenters noted that Gusman waited until after the election, which took place Saturday, was over to speak with the council. Under a federal consent decree since 2013, the Sheriff’s Office will be released from the order once a facility is built for those incarcerated people who need mental healthcare, a deal agreed on between a federal judge and the city’s former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

But the expansion has been met with criticism from residents and even city officials. At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Jay Banks sternly told the public commenters who voiced their opinion in opposition to Phase III that the council would not support the measure.

"Every time this matter comes up before the council, I'm going to ask to defer it,” Banks said. “The council will not vote on Phase III, nor will we take a vote that might be interpreted as contempt."

Banks asked the advocates in the room to understand that the council's silence on the issue means they are opposed to it. Banks said that by law, the city needs to act on Phase III by Jan.3.

If the city has not begun on the project, it will be up to a court to decide on the arrangement.

Amicably, Gusman disagreed with the council member. During the presentation, Gusman showed that while the jail’s population has steadily declined in the past decade, it is currently facing other issues, including an influx of inmates with mental healthcare needs.

Gusman said that of the 876 current inmates, 469 are diagnosed with a mental illness.

The high number of mental illness diagnoses was confirmed by Dr. Jeffery Rouse, who works inside the jail and was in the audience. Rouse said the high number made the jail the second-largest psych ward in the state behind Brentwood Hospital in Shreveport.

Rouse said the concept of Phase III could grant psychologists easier access to those experiencing mental health problems. He also applauded the concept of installing an infirmary inside the grounds, which would save manpower from the NOPD in transporting injured and sick inmates.

Gusman could not answer council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s question on whether more staffing would be required if Phase III was built. The sheriff said there is currently a study being conducted by a third party to see what would be required.

While looking over the budgetary issues, Moreno asked Gusman how much the jail spends on mental healthcare versus how much is spent on regular healthcare. Gusman and his staff couldn't give an answer, but promised Moreno they would find the number and get back to her.

One question that Gusman could answer was why he needed the $77.5 million for funding, even if the jail's intake population had declined by 60,000 inmates since 2005.

Gusman said the jail is still being run at full staff and is costly because of the inability to shut down portions of the jail. The low number of inmates is still enough to populate the majority of floors inside the prison. Another problem is that the first floor is currently being used to quarantine newly incarcerated people for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The public commenters of the meeting were mainly against giving Gusman the funding he was asking for, including one from his political opponent, Susan Hutson. The two are currently in a runoff election that will be decided on Dec. 11.

Hutson said the budget laid out by Gusman does not show how the office is paying out lawsuits that OPSO is facing, nor does it show recidivism rates. An independent police monitor, Hutson has said that she would complete an in-depth audit of the Sheriff's Office if elected.

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