NEW ORLEANS - With the approval Thursday of a sweeping – and expensive – federal consent decree designed to bring long-needed reforms to Orleans Parish Prison, the city’s Inspector General stepped into the fray by issuing a hard-hitting report on the finances of the sheriff's office.
The 28-page report outlines a dysfunctional arrangement in which the city pays for the jail, but has no control over how the money is spent. And, according to the report, the city pays much more than its court-mandated per diem of $22 per inmate.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux wrote that in addition to budgeting about $22 million for prison operations, additional expenses such as health care, insurance and debt financing bring the total cost to more than $36 million.
That brings the inmate per diem to more than $47 a day.
“The problem is not about money,” Quatrevaux said. “The sheriff’s office gets plenty of money. They problem is about how that money is managed.”
The report relies heavily on a comparison between New Orleans and the municipal jail in Louisville, Kentucky. The report shows that Sheriff Marlin Gusman spends 37 percent more to operate OPP, even though the Louisville jail has almost exactly the same number of inmates and employees.
"They've got the same number of prisoners and staff and everything else. They do it on $53 million and the sheriff spends $73 million here. So it's a significantly higher cost," Quatrevaux said.
So what accounts for the extra costs?
"The personnel's about the same, but contracts, inmate food, legal services and debt service were much higher here than in Louisville," Quatrevaux said.
- Legal costs in Louisville were $150,000 in 2011, compared to $1.7 million in New Orleans.
- Debt service – payments on municipal bonds – were $3 million in Louisville, compared to $12 million in New Orleans.
- Inmate food costs in Louisville were $1.8 million in 2011, compared to $4.8 million in New Orleans.
“People are the same everywhere, and people eat the same amount of food,” Quatrevaux said. “It’s hard to understand.”
In his response to the findings, Gusman wrote that the general comparisons with Louisville are unfair because his office does more than operate a jail, such as providing court security and electronic monitoring of defendants released on bond.
But Mayor Mitch Landrieu continues to say that the city can no longer write the sheriff a blank check.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Landrieu wrote, “Next week, we will continue to make our case to the Court that the problems at the prison are more about management than money. I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into the sheriff’s office where waste, fraud and abuse run rampant.”
Gusman countered that statement with one of his own: “The Sheriff’s Office has made steady improvements – after years of neglect – to a patchwork of jail facilities and after Hurricane Katrina devastated the facilities. The Sheriff’s Office is managing these changes and improvements while there continues to be a severe lack of funding by the City of New Orleans….The administration is diverting attention away from its failure to properly fund the Sheriff’s Office.”
The Inspector General’s report was completed just in time for next week's hearing here in federal court on who's going to pay for the reforms in the consent decree. Quatrevaux says the timing was no coincidence:
“What we attempted to do was to provide that information to the people making the decision, the sheriff, the city, I guess the federal court."
The hearing over consent decree financing is scheduled to begin Monday morning before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.