Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why should you care about the jail size? Part 3

The Trumpet Blog: Opinion

How do we move forward?

We hope, from what you have read so far, that you begin to understand why we believe that the jail is one of the most important issues not only for today, but for our decade and even for decades to come. Why do we say this? We say this because we consider history and the real, documented fact that poor black men spend much more time in jail than they need to when compared to white men who commit the same offenses.

Remember that we are not talking about violent offenders. We are not talking about offenders that pose a threat to you or your property. People who pose a threat to you and your property should serve jail time. We don’t disagree with this statement. However, we are talking about a large number of non-violent, non-dangerous offenders that with proper service and an effective system would never spend more than one day in the local jail, if that.

Again, the question we are facing as a community is this: what size jail do we want? Do we want the 3,600 that the Sheriff is requesting? Or do we want the 1,438 that some members of the working group believe is sufficient for the city? How do we agree on an answer? What’s the breakdown? What is truth and what is not truth? To make sense of all of this requires a combination of leaders working together to address a singular goal. That goal, we believe is the following:

Ensure public safety of the general community by focusing on violent/dangerous offenders.

If we as citizens of this city focus on this goal, then the jail size number that we need shrinks to a very manageable number that is somewhere around 1,400 to 1,600 beds. Where do we get this range from? Well, we are going back to the study that Dr. James Austin provided the working group. You can find it online at the mayor’s webpage.

In that report, Dr. Austin points out that within two years we could be at a level of efficiency and service that requires no more than 2,104 beds for local offenders and that includes 250 state offenders. What are state offenders? Basically, they are people who have been convicted and are serving time for the State of Louisiana. In most parishes, these people go to state facilities. In our case, the Sheriff houses state prisoners on behalf of the state. We have learned from Dr. Austin and other experts that this is neither a common practice, nor the best option for state offenders. If you want to understand this particular issue better, feel free to contact us.

If we remove state offenders, say by 200, then Dr. Austin’s projected need for 2012 is 2,104 minus 200 or 1,904. So, if the Sheriff will have his new jail of 1,438 beds ready in two years (which is his plan), we are looking at maybe needing 1,904 beds for all offenders in the jail.

However, it is possible that if we can put together better coordination of services, better arrest policies (some of which have already begun) then it might be possible that we can work to reduce this number by 500 to 600 people within two to three years. If we do this, we will only need the 1,438 jail that the Sheriff is about to build and we can tear down all the other dilapidated and unsafe buildings that make up our current jail.

This is where we believe we ought to go as a city. If we listen to the experts, the folks who understand these complex issues far better than we do, we learn from them that we could create savings and keep the public safe. By having a smaller jail, our city can focus on improving services that help keep people out of jail.

We can do this without risking our safety. Why?

Because we would free up the criminal justice system to focus on violent and dangerous offenders.

Our jail, in the very near future, would only house local violent and dangerous offenders. The millions of dollars we save as taxpayers could then be used to strengthen all of the services that are alternatives to incarceration. That is, we can plan to help people stay out of jail who are not, and will not be, a threat to you or me. All we need to do as a city is have the political will to change how we function. We can do this right now, in the next few months for this year. And if we do this, we will have the foundation for a city that invests more in the success of its people and invests less in the failed practice of over-arresting and jailing.

You may contact The Trumpet Blog Staff at or 504-940-2207.

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