Orleans Justice Center

BGR: Jail’s problems need officials working together for fix

By Rebecca Mowbray

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

May 9, 2023

On April 29, New Orleans voters made a clear statement against paying more in taxes for the city jail. But a key question remains: Does the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office need additional funding — likely from another source, such as the City of New Orleans’ general fund — to comply with court-ordered reforms at the jail?

Answering this question will require collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, and the city, which must provide the bulk of the jail’s funding under Louisiana law. As the Bureau of Governmental Research showed in a 2022 report entitled “Keys to the Jail,” this division of responsibilities has all too often resulted in conflict, with the city blaming the jail’s poor performance on mismanagement and the sheriff citing underfunding.

The failed tax proposition grew out of yet another funding disagreement. After the City Council declined a Sheriff’s Office request for $13 million in new funding for 2023, Sheriff Susan Hutson placed the proposed tax increase on the ballot.

It was a seriously flawed proposition. BGR’s On the Ballot analysis found that the office did not fully explain how it would use the additional $11.7 million in annual tax revenue. In addition, the spending plan did not account for major declared needs to fill vacant positions the office has deemed essential. The proposal also lacked meaningful public accountability, both for the sheriff’s future use of tax revenue and the city’s obligation to provide sufficient funding for the jail.

In addition, BGR found that a dedicated tax has shortcomings as a jail funding mechanism. Citizens generally lack direct knowledge of conditions at the jail — a facility that, by definition, is closed to the public. Because of this, voters are not in a good position to determine appropriate funding levels or hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable for how it spends the tax revenue. In general, these tasks should fall to the city as it sets its annual allocation to the jail from its general fund.

Going through the appropriations process has other benefits over a tax, which is rigid and locks property owners into paying a fixed amount for the duration of a millage, regardless of need. Budget hearings make elected officials — the mayor, the City Council, the sheriff — accountable to the public for the steps they take to help the jail succeed. Hearings also create built-in updates for the public about the performance of the jail, and funding can be scaled up or down as necessary. This is especially important as the jail’s population and staffing needs continue to fluctuate.

We believe more collaboration — not less, as could have occurred with the tax — is necessary to create a jail that meets minimum constitutional standards. As BGR recommended in “Keys to the Jail,” the city and Sheriff’s Office should establish an ongoing strategic planning process in which they work together on the budget, facilities, employee compensation and training, and other jail needs. They also should improve fiscal transparency and accountability to ensure adequate city funding for the jail and careful tracking of how the sheriff spends the money.

The sheriff should develop detailed staffing, compensation and capital plans so the city and broader community can assess what the jail really needs to be successful. It is incumbent on the city to commit to funding the jail’s demonstrated needs. In a sign of progress on this front, the City Council last fall approved the sheriff’s proposal to raise pay for all hourly employees by about $5,000 a year. This is a core component of the sheriff’s plan to increase salary and benefits to address hiring and retention problems, particularly among deputies working in the jail. The two parties should build upon this common ground with an eye toward improving conditions at the jail and ending more than a half-century of federal oversight and investigation.

Rebecca Mowbray is president of the Bureau of Governmental Research.

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