NEW ORLEANS — After a fight involving four inmates at the Orleans Justice Center on Friday that left one inmate dead and two in the hospital, followed by an inmate suicide on Sunday, Sheriff Susan Hutson announced she was pulling deputies from criminal court to work in the jail.
The emergency transfer of the deputies forced the criminal courthouse to close indefinitely Monday, scuttling all court hearings and trials scheduled for the day. With no plan to return the deputies to their courthouse security posts, other court hearings for the week also are in jeopardy of cancellation, including seven scheduled trials.
“It is undermining public confidence in the system,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the non-profit watchdog group known as Metropolitan Crime Commission. “The repercussions of this, no one can truly comprehend and document or put a dollar amount on the impact of this. This is a failure. This is unacceptable.”
Goyeneche said the ripple effects of the canceled court will hit the DA's office, public defender's office, and police department, along with victims, witnesses and defendants.
“The criminal justice system is only as strong as its weakest component,” he said. “And we're seeing some of the weaknesses in the sheriff's lineup emerging within six weeks of her inauguration.”
A host of officials weighed in on the emergency.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued this statement: “We look forward to Sheriff Hutson devising a long-term solution that addresses the unacceptable violence within the facility, as well as developing a comprehensive approach focusing on mental health issues.”
Councilman Oliver Thomas urged Hutson to reconsider and find an alternative solution.
“Given the recent spike in violence and the devastations that happen on our streets, we cannot afford to shut down or slow down our court system or negatively impact families and other components of the criminal justice system that depend on the order and protection that those deputies provide,” Thomas wrote in an email. “I am asking for a better solution and compromise from the Sheriff while all partners convene to attempt to work this out.”
The judges of criminal court said in a statement Sunday they were “shocked” at the removal of the deputies.
Through Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik, the court issued another statement on Monday after a promise to make inmate defendants available virtually on Zoom was not kept.
“Criminal District Court held court virtually today,” Kazik wrote. “Unfortunately, the Court did not have access to any in-custody defendants housed as OJC. The Court has requested a meeting with Sheriff Hutson by day’s end and is currently awaiting a response as to her availability.”
WWL-TV posed several questions to Sheriff Hutson through a spokesperson about the jail fight and the removal of the courthouse deputies, but her office did not respond by the early evening, despite repeated campaign promises of transparency.
District Attorney Jason Williams also weighed in with a statement:
“While we were looking forward to trying a number of cases in front of juries over the next few weeks in court, including seven this week alone, we understand the issues of safety and security in the Orleans Justice Center. When we learned of this newest emergency closure, the DA’s Office worked overnight to put a triage plan in place to continue to work to secure justice for victims and families. Sunday evening, my team began the process of reaching out to survivors and witnesses to inform them of today’s closure.”
In a statement over the weekend, the sheriff’s office stated that deputies also would be “recalled from their posts at the OPSO Training Academy, Transportation Division, and Kitchen Warehouse….They are being temporarily reassigned to the Orleans Justice Center to counteract a critical staffing shortage that has persisted for months.”
The email over the weekend included a statement from Hutson.
“Losing even one life is one too many,” she wrote. “A loss of life in OJC will no longer be treated as simply the byproduct of running a jail – not on my watch. I came into this office with a jail that was severely understaffed and unsafe. My order calling our deputies in to secure the jail is a temporary measure that I have put in place to protect the lives of every person inside the jail. My full Executive Team and Commanders are accelerating our staffing plan to achieve a long-term solution.”