Kevin McGill / The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS -- Pressing its argument that New Orleans' jail is mismanaged by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, an attorney for the city told a federal judge Monday that the true cost of running the lockup is veiled by budget figures that lack detail and make it difficult to see how much money is needed to institute court-ordered reforms.
"The sheriff's accounting practices are reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz," lawyer Harry Rosenberg told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.
It was the start of two days of testimony and a series of summer hearings that will determine how much Gusman needs to implement reforms embodied in an agreement the sheriff made with the U.S. Justice Department to improve conditions at the notoriously violent and rundown jail complex, which is funded by the city. The pact was reached in December. Africk formally approved it earlier this month over objections from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration amid concerns that the financially strapped city cannot afford it.
Gusman took the stand later Monday morning and insisted that he will be able to point to specific uses for city revenue as he seeks an increase in the $23 million a year the city currently pays.
While the sheriff costs have gone up, especially medical costs, the city maintains that inmate populations and annual bookings are going down.
At times, Africk grew impatient with Rosenberg's questioning of Gusman over audits from 2010 and 2011. He was skeptical of their relevance to future funding needs. "What's spent is spent," Africk said at one point.
The judge also was visibly irritated with a late submission of documents by the Sheriff's Office on the projected costs of running the jail through the end of the year.
In opening arguments, Justice Department lawyer Laura Coon expressed the worry that the dispute between the city and sheriff will delay improvements at the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison. "Now is the time for the sheriff and the city to take ownership of the problem," she said.
The agreement was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of inmates in April 2012. The Justice Department later intervened in the class-action suit.
The agreement, known as a consent decree, calls for Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care and overhaul policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms that are expected to require more money for personnel.
The city's accusations of mismanagement by Gusman have included release earlier this year of an inmate-made video showing brazen drug use, gambling, beer drinking and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a cell in a now-closed part of the jail complex. Inmates testified about sexual assaults and beatings at the hands of guards or other inmates. Prison experts said treatment for mental or physical conditions was badly lacking and that violent inmates were often mixed in with vulnerable ones.
The sheriff, even while downplaying problems at the jail, said the agreement will aid reform, and he said the city inadequately funds the jail.