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Sheriff's race against incumbent Marlin Gusman, Susan Hutson goes to runoff

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Orleans Justice Center

New Orleanians must wait a few more weeks to learn who their next sheriff will be, with a runoff called between incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman and former New Orleans Police Department Independent Monitor Susan Hutson.

With 313 out of 351 precincts reporting as of 10:15 p.m., WWL-TV called the runoff between the candidates. Gusman had 43% of the vote, and Hutson earned 40%.

The close race pitted Hutson, a progressive, criminal justice reformer who could be the first Black female sheriff in Louisiana, against a longtime local politician with strong ties to the state’s Democratic Party. Whoever wins the runoff will take the position and manage a jail that has been shrouded in controversy for nearly a decade.

Some of the state’s highest profile Democrats, including Gov. John Bel Edwards and Congressman Troy Carter, endorsed Gusman.

A group called the PAC for Justice, formed in 2020 in an effort to get criminal justice reformer judges elected, raised funds and pushed for Hutson to be elected.

“She has the knowledge to get us out of this consent decree that we've been in for eight years,” co-chair of the PAC for Justice and executive director of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition Sade Dumas said, referring to a federal order that the jail is under to come into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

Dumas pointed to Hutson’s work as an independent police monitor for the NOPD and for the Los Angeles Police Department, where she was previously based, as proof of her track record in law enforcement oversight.

However, critics of Hutson point to her lack of law enforcement experience. In an interview before the election, Hutson said she would like to move away from traditional law enforcement measures.

As Sheriff, Gusman’s main duty has been to manage the Orleans Justice Center, formerly the Orleans Parish Prison, the city’s jail, which has been plagued by the federal consent decree — issued in 2013 — for nearly half of his tenure.

During his campaign, Gusman noted his oversight of a new jail facility being built. But that construction was part of the consent decree, brought on by a lawsuit over jail conditions filed by people incarcerated in the facility.

The order outlines several criteria that the facility must meet in order to be brought into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

Gusman lost operational authority over the jail — the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s main duty, as deputies do not typically patrol the city’s streets — after an independent monitor reported a lack of progress in reforming the facility. In an agreement with the Department of Justice, final authority was given to an independent jail compliance officer.

Gusman resumed control over the jail in August 2020.

In the weeks leading up to the sheriff’s race, federally appointed independent monitors for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office blasted the Orleans Justice Center for slow progress in achieving the goals set out in the consent decree, particularly in mental and medical health care. Monitors noted that medical staff on suicide watch were responsible for too many people at one time. The jail saw one suicide death and one drug overdose death in 2020 and another overdose death in June.

Despite the monitors’ report, wrote that the federal judge who oversees the consent decree recently issued favorable comments about Gusman, saying that progress had been made in bringing the jail into compliance with the U.S. constitution.

Judge Lance Africk said Gusman’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic were “nothing short of life-saving,” and the Times-Picayune article pointed to the fact that the Sheriff’s Office was one of the first government agencies in the state to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees. The Sheriff’s Office also rolled out mass testing for its incarcerated population.

For several years, Gusman has been pushing to build a separate 89-bed psychiatric jail facility, called Phase III, on the Orleans Justice Center campus, which would house detainees with acute mental health needs. The city has opposed the new facility, and officials have even tried to halt construction of the new building, a move that was denied by Judge Africk.

Criminal justice reform advocates argue that the building is unnecessary, as it will increase jail capacity at a time when efforts are being made to shrink incarcerated populations.

On the campaign trail Gusman has noted that he has reduced the jail population.

“When I was elected, there were 13 jails. I have since closed, abandoned or demolished every single one. We had 7,000 inmates when I came in. Now we have less than 900,” he told the Gambit.

Much of that reduction in the jail population has been attributed to pressure from criminal justice reform groups, including the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

As NOPD Independent Monitor, Hutson wrote to Judge Africk to oppose Phase III. Throughout her campaign, she has said that she would continue to oppose its construction as Sheriff.

A request to retrofit a portion of the current jail to house incarcerated people with severe medical and mental health needs is up for appeal in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Hutson has said that she would file an amicus brief in support of the retrofit option.

Hutson has also opposed the recording of attorneys’ calls with their clients held inside Orleans Justice Center and has said that she would stop charging loved ones for calls with people incarcerated in the jail. She noted that Black women often bear the brunt of these kinds of costs.

“If you look at the people who all the wealth is extracted from [by] the jail — like phone calls [and] money for commissary — it's coming from Black women. They're doing without lights and water and food to stay in touch with loved ones or to help loved ones in the jail,” Hutson said.

Gusman has pointed to reforms made during the last 17 years that he has been sheriff as reason to re-elect him for another term.

He launched a regional re-entry program for incarcerated people returning to their communities in southeast Louisiana and the Day Reporting Center, which offers a variety of services to individuals on probation and parole. Both programs are aimed at reducing recidivism. A high school diploma-focused program was also launched during Gusman’s Tenure.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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