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City Council leaves jail expansion decision to federal judges

The Orleans Justice Center at 2800 Perdido opened in 2016. (via Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition)

By Daniel Schwalm, Mid-City Messenger

The City Council passed a resolution Thursday (Feb. 3) confirming its continued opposition to expanding the Orleans Parish prison and supporting a renovation of the existing jail instead — while deciding not to vote on a proposed zoning change that would have cleared the way for the renovation to take place.

The City Planning Commission voted unanimously in November to recommend that the City Council approve the zoning change to allow renovation of the existing jail. By declining to vote on the zoning change, the City Council effectively killed it, leaving the fate of the jail up to an ongoing appeal by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration in federal court.

The mayor has appealed a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the jail’s federal consent decree, that the city must go ahead with the expansion plan. The Sheriff’s Office has been under a consent decree since 2013 to improve conditions for the prisoners in its facilities.

The expansion, known as Phase III, was conceived under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to comply with a consent decree requirement to create adequate facilities and services for inmates with mental health conditions.

However, the mayor, the City Council and numerous criminal justice reform activists back a renovation of the existing jail to create better facilities for mentally ill inmates. They argue that a new jail building would increase mass incarceration, be difficult to staff, and eat up millions of dollars of taxpayer money that they say would be better spent on community mental health resources.

With a reduced prison population, cells can be converted for mental health treatment, advocates say. (via Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition)

In the December runoff, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the only prominent New Orleans elected official who has voiced support for expanding the jail, lost to Susan Hutson, who ran on a platform that included opposing the expansion. Hutson will take office on May 2.

In spite of their support for the alternative renovation plan, council members agreed that it was improper to try to use zoning law to block part of a federal consent decree.

The resolution passed by the council directs its legal team to file an amicus brief in federal court in opposition to the expansion and in support of the retrofit. Hutson said earlier this week that she would file a similar brief as well.

Now, attention will shift to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where federal judges will consider the Cantrell administration’s appeal against Africk’s order to proceed with the expansion. That process will begin in March.

Reporter Daniel Schwalm can be reached at dpschwal@my.loyno.edu.

The Orleans Justice Center Medical Service Building is planned for 2900 Perdido St., between South Dupre and South Gayoso. (via City Planning Commission)

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