Dear Mayor Landrieu: We are deeply disappointed to learn that you have gone on record advocating for a change to the 2011 City ordinance which capped the number of beds at Orleans Parish Prison to 1438, and that you support plans to build an additional jail facility with more beds. We feared that might be your position when the Lens reported last Spring that your Deputy Mayor was in conversations with the Sheriff regarding plans for another building, but we had hoped you might be convinced otherwise.
We were concerned when you resisted the consent decrees which have resulted from the efforts of the Justice Department to bring our police and jail into compliance with constitutional requirements. When you raised concerns about other public needs that might need to be sacrificed if we spent so much on the jail, we thought that at least this might mean that you would also resist the strain on the budget that would result from building yet another facility which the city will then be responsible to fund in terms of staffing, maintenance, etc. We were disappointed to find that while you don't feel the city can afford the expense of making its police and jail safe and constitutional, it can afford the cost of locking up more of its people than any other city in this country and worldwide.
When we met with you earlier this summer, you said you shared our goal of ending New Orleans' high rate of incarceration. You listed a number of ways in which your office has been supportive of reducing the number of individuals housed in OPP, such as support for pre-trial services and supporting the end of housing Department of Corrections prisoners in the city jail. We called on you for even greater leadership. While we are understand that there are multiple actors responsible for who ends up in jail, we believe you can do more:
- Pledge your renewed support for the 1438 cap –Demand an objective investigation into whether the new facility can be retrofitted in order to provide for mental health needs and special populations. If human rights concerns make this impossible at this juncture and another facility is built, the total bed count should not go above 1438.
- Release individuals who do not need to be held in jail --Use the executive power of the Mayor's office to declare the jail a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of all those detainees who would be set free in the event of a Category 3 hurricane in the Gulf. These people being held for minor charges simply because they are too poor to pay bond are being needlessly endangered and tens of thousands of the city's very limited dollars are being used to keep them in horrid conditions which put their lives at risk and violate their constitutional rights.
- Budget for reform –Submit a budget that fully funds the Pretrial Services program and eliminates the per diem funding structure for the jail. Invest in the establishment of community based reentry, drug treatment, and mental health services in in accord with best practices rather than paying to jail these populations.
- Lead the criminal justice system in the full implementation of needed reforms: Use the full extent of your influence with other actors in the criminal justice system to encourage reforms that will reduce our incarceration rate, for example: (1) Direct the police to stop overcharging those arrested for minor offenses; (2) Encourage the District Attorney's Office to exercise their discretion to reduce inflated charges; (3) Advocate for sentencing reform in Baton Rouge and encourage the District Attorney and the Sheriff to be a voice in the DA's and Sheriff Associations calling for support for these needed reforms; (4) Demand that judges, including those in municipal court, fully implement the Pretrial Services program.
Mass incarceration is not merely a political issue; it's more importantly a human reality that destroys people's lives. Because we love this city and its people, we can't give up on this matter. We hope that as we move forward, we will be able to count you as an ally in this work.