Care, Not Cages: A Big Win for Criminal Justice Reform

Photo courtesy of OPPRC

Yesterday was a big day in New Orleans for advocates of criminal justice and mental healthcare reform, especially the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC). A crowd of community advocates spoke in opposition to the construction of a new Phase III jail for inmates with mental health problems at the city council meeting. These advocates came in support of resolution R-21-274, proposed by councilmembers Kristin Palmer and Jay Banks, which would support the Option 3 retrofit plans in the July 23, 2020 JFA Institute report over a new Phase III jail facility. This would signal support for retrofitting the current jail to provide pointed accommodations for people with acute and sub-acute mental illness instead of constructing a new facility.

The resolution passed 7-0 following an extensive amount of public testimony in support of the resolution. Councilmember Palmer noted that all 67 online comments on the resolution were in support of the resolution, which “speaks volumes.” OPPRC has been leading the fight for years on this issue and multiple members spoke yesterday urging the council to be strong in the face of federal courts who have ruled that New Orleans must build the Phase III facility to be in constitutional compliance due to the consent decree approved in 2013.

OPPRC’s executive director, Sade Dumas, spoke at the council meeting and provided comment to us afterwards, stating: “For years, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) has advocated against jail expansion, including the proposed construction of an expensive Phase III psychiatric jail. We commend Council members Kristin Palmer & Jay H. Banks for pushing forward a resolution that supports New Orleanians’ fight for an alternative retrofit option. Today, Council members showed that they are against spending over $50M in taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary jail building, and we expect they’ll continue to take that stance. 

Countless experts deemed the Orleans Justice Center (OJC) retrofit plan as a viable option for meeting constitutional standards during last year’s hearing in Federal Court, and now the City Planning Commission must consider the less expensive retrofit option that medical professionals, city leaders, and—most importantly—New Orleans residents support.”

Incumbent Orleans Parish Sheriff, Marlin Gusman, is in support of the planned Phase III building alongside a federal judge overseeing the New Orleans jail’s federal consent decree intended to bring the jail into constitutional compliance following a long-history of poor inmate conditions. Mayor LaToya Cantrell has stood in opposition to this ruling and the order is currently being appealed. Councilmember Palmer has outwardly stated that their support will not waiver despite the possibility of being held in contempt of court for not adhering to the federal ruling. It would appear the council, the mayor’s office, and the community agree.

Public comment for the resolution was lively and extensive. Representatives from OPPRC, Vera Institute of Justice, Louisiana Fair Housing Center, BreakOUT! and Orleans Public Defenders spoke in endorsement of the resolution. Additionally, Susan Hutson, who is running against Gusman for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, spoke in support of the resolution arguing that mental illness is not a crime and that the Phase III facility would effectively criminalize mental illness. 

This sentiment was echoed by the community. One community advocate urged consideration, more specifically, of a FEMA-funded forensic hospital that would provide proper mental health care outside of the context of criminality, a proposal previously advanced by ex-councilmember Susan Guidry. A few community speakers also pointed to how policies that criminalize mental health issues also disproportionately target the LGBTQ+ community, especially young people. Another community member summarized the matter as being akin to “building a monument to a failed idea.” 

Notably, Will Snowden, current director of Vera Institute for Justice’s New Orleans office, spoke in support of the resolution. Snowden argued that the retrofit approach alongside broader efforts to provide mental health care to the community is not only best, but also possible with funds from the American Rescue Plan purposed for mental health care. Snowden pledged Vera’s support, stating that the organization would do studies into the matter to aid the city in its approach. Furthermore, Snowden suggested that the city might use Tucson or Baton Rouge’s crisis receiving centers model for inspiration. Members of the city council responded to Snowden with interest, assuring support and stating the importance of this collaboration in research going forward. Vera has been crucial in galvanizing criminal justice reform in New Orleans, such as the extensive progress the city has made in pretrial detention policy since 2007.

The real elephant in the room was acknowledged by council president Moreno in the closing statements, stating that the, “big ask is to the court.” Many cited research that the retrofit option was more than sufficient to bring the jail into constitutional compliance and that the court’s ruling would unnecessarily penalize the city financially and incentivize over-policing of those with mental illnesses. Councilmember Palmer opened up discussion by framing how the issue has transformed since the consent decree’s approval in 2013. New Orleans’ jail population has declined 75 percent over the past ten years and the Phase III facility would cost $50 million upfront with a yearly upkeep cost of $8 million. Opponents of the facility view it as not only a solution in search of a problem, but a problem in of itself that would threaten the extensive progress the city has made. 

U.S. prisons and jails disproportionately incarcerate people with a current or past mental health problem and are ill-suited to provide mental healthcare. The two-pronged approach of Phase III opponents embraces retrofitting alongside broader mental healthcare reform to address this. Sheriff Gusman did not speak at the council meeting, but has argued that the new facility would allow for proper mental health care of inmates. Critics argue that the retrofit resolves this and that building 89 new beds would only incentivize overzealous policing of those with mental health issues. Robert Jones, director of community outreach for Orleans Public Defenders, argued at the meeting that one should not have to commit a crime to get mental healthcare, which gets to the heart of the opposition to the Phase III facility. 

This resolution is a big first-step in challenging the federal ruling. This would save the city millions of dollars that could be invested in comprehensive mental health access for the community, which would more effectively address the root cause of the issue. In closing statements, councilmember Jared Brosset stated that we should use the American Rescue Plan funds to make mental health of the community the city’s priority. Councilmember Banks affirmed this sentiment stating that, “mental illness is not criminal. Period.” 

Councilmembers Palmer and Banks also proposed a motion, M-21-276, that would instruct the City Planning Commission to consider the possibility of retrofitting the current jail. The motion was deferred until August 5th following the passage of the resolution. This issue is far from resolved, but the community, city council, mayor’s office, and organizational advocates are unified in opposition to the federal ruling and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. The ball is in the federal government’s court now and New Orleans is watching.

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