NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans City Council has voted unanimously to pass an ordinance authorizing the construction of a new jail that is much smaller than what had previously been planned in a bid to reduce the city’s prison population.
The ordinance calls for the construction of a 1,438-bed jail, less than a third of the size of the originally proposed expansion that called for more than 4,000 beds. Before Hurricane Katrina, the city’s jail complex had about 7,500 beds and housed prison inmates who had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced.
Some city administrators are calling the smaller jail proposal a mistake. Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who presented the original, 4,000-bed proposal issued a statement last week stating that the ordinance may prevent the jail from being built altogether, which would “be costly to taxpayers and prolong the use of antiquated prison facilities.”
Supporters of the smaller jail compared New Orleans with neighboring Jefferson Parish’s 1,200-inmate facility, but Gusman called it “ludicrous” to compare the two, noting that New Orleans is urban and largely poor, while Jefferson Parish is a “bedroom community.”
Criminal justice reform advocates claim, however, that smaller jails will force the city to explore alternatives to incarceration that tackle systemic issues like joblessness and poverty. A group of leaders from several different faiths released a letter they sent to the council last week saying that building a bigger jail “will threaten the city’s efforts to transform our criminal justice system into a more humane, effective and efficient system that is capable of ensuring equal justice for all.”