Power struggles between city, sheriff's office set back New Orleans jail's progress
The report highlights two recent jails deaths as evidence that the sheriff's office has struggled to improve jail conditions despite years of federal oversight
By Jillian Kramer
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS, La. — Power struggles between the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office and the city have long stymied progress at the New Orleans jail that could have moved the facility closer to compliance with a federal consent decree and made it safer, according to a new report.
The report, from the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research watchdog group, calls upon the agencies to collaborate on a number of measures that would shore up the jail's budget, ensure greater accountability and create a local entity to oversee the jail even before it's unshackled from the decree.
The report highlights two recent jails deaths as evidence that the Sheriff's Office has struggled to improve jail conditions despite years of federal oversight, including the last nine spent under a consent decree put in place after documented missteps, drug use and allegations of violence within the jail's walls — including violence perpetrated by deputies.
"Something's got to change," said BGR President and CEO Rebecca Mowbray. "We believe that the very structure of the relationship between the city and the jail has to change in order to achieve better outcomes at the jail and reduce the likelihood that we run into problems in the future."
Sheriff Susan Hutson has pointed to a staffing crisis as a key contributor to violence within the jail. She's promised a staffing plan to beef up the deputies' ranks, including raising salaries.
But while the city supplies most of the $55.7 million annual budget of the Sheriff's Office, it has no control over how the money is spent. At the same time, the Sheriff's Office is limited by the city's control of the purse strings.
"The inherent tension in this relationship at the heart of New Orleans' jail governance structure has led to...power struggles and ineffective problem solving," the report states.
"Better coordination and planning between [the Sheriff's Office] and city are critical — not just for finances but to rectify safety issues that appear to have escalated," said City Council President Helena Moreno. She added that the council has received no information about how the Sheriff's Office plans to combat recent spates of violence, including four separate stabbings.
Orleans Parish is also an outlier among other parishes and counties in how it is run, according to the report. In 20 other counties surveyed for its report, BGR found that the local government either operates the jail itself or actively participates in its governance in all but Orleans Parish.
Many of those counties have also added a "layer of local performance oversight," according to the report. As one of several recommendations, BGR has encouraged the Sheriff's Office and city to seek a binding agreement that creates an independent local agency to oversee the jail before the consent decree is dissolved.
A Sheriff's Office spokesperson did not return a call for comment Monday, and it was not clear whether council members would consider creating such an independent body for the future.
"If you had someone from the outside — who's independent from the city and the jail — taking a look at things on an ongoing basis, that would help produce ideas to improve performance, as they work through issues of funding, staffing and management at the jail," Mowbray said.