Orleans sheriff cedes power to appointee in jail compromise
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A compromise announced Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans keeps the local sheriff in charge of the city’s long-troubled jail but only after he cedes broad authority to an outside official who will oversee the jail’s management.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman agreed to appoint a new compliance director — from nominees made by inmate advocates, the city of New Orleans and the Justice Department — who will have extensive power over the jail’s management and budget. The judge who has been overseeing the yearslong litigation concerning the troubled jail would maintain authority to reject the choice.
And, while the sheriff would make the hire, the order signed by Judge Lance Africk says, “The Compliance Director will be answerable only to the court.”
At a news conference immediately following the announcement, Gusman appeared to describe the compromise as a win, emphasizing that he will be the one hiring the compliance director and saying the agreement would address his longstanding complaints about pay increases and budget issues.
The compromise announced Tuesday ends weeks of controversial testimony about whether Gusman should be stripped of his authority to operate the jail.
In April, lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and the inmate advocates asked Africk to place the jail in “federal receivership” and appoint a third party to run the lockup. They cited Gusman’s slow progress in implementing reforms required in a 2012 lawsuit settlement. Gusman blamed the problems on a lack of funding from the city.
Gusman has likened the attempt to strip him of his authority to run the jail to an illegal coup and a move to thwart the will of voters.
“This is an agreement that resolves some longstanding issues,” Gusman said Tuesday morning when asked if the compromise was simply “receivership” by another name.
Hearings on the motion to have the jail placed in receivership began late last month with testimony from a court-appointed monitor and others who described jail violence and conditions that contributed to a March suicide.
Gusman was expected to testify at some point, but hearings were repeatedly postponed since early June. Two people with knowledge of the case confirmed that the parties have been in negotiations. Each spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Inmates were moved from the old, decaying jail into a new building last September, something the sheriff touted as a factor in improving conditions. But monitors say violence endangering inmates and staffers continues at the new facility.
Gusman on Tuesday stressed areas where he will have control. And he expressed optimism that the new director, who will have the authority to submit a new jail operation budget to the city, will help resolve funding issues, including the need for pay raises for deputies.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and Gusman have long been at odds over money. While Gusman runs the jail, the city funds it. Landrieu has been critical of the sheriff’s jail management, and city officials had made clear in court filings they would prefer to work with a receiver in determining the jails’ budget needs.
Katie Schwartzmann, attorney for the inmates, stressed in a news release that the new director will have the final authority to hire, fire and reassign staff, with authority “to make whatever decisions are necessary to move the jail toward compliance with the Consent Decree.”
“This change in leadership and the addition of correctional management experience is critical to speeding reform at the jail. We are hopeful that the Sheriff will likewise support the changes necessary to create significant and lasting reform at the Orleans Parish jail,” said the news release from Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the MacArthur Justice Center.
Associated Press reporter Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.