Sheriff Marlin Gusman touring the Orleans Parish Prison (File)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans has asked a federal court to reject a plan by the U.S. Justice Department and the local sheriff to reform the Orleans Parish Prison - a plan that the city says it would have to pay for even though the sheriff runs the facility.
The U.S. Justice Department and Sheriff Marlin Gusman agreed to the plan in December. That upset city officials, who said it would add to the city's financial burden under a separate reform plan for the New Orleans Police Department. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Justice officials announced that much-heralded plan last July but the city tried to back out of the agreement in January amid a public rift with Justice lawyers.
The police reform plan is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars in the coming years as the police department adds cameras to all of its cars, hires a monitor and staff to gauge compliance with the agreement, engages in prescribed training practices and meets a host of other requirements. Meanwhile, the city is responsible for funding the prison, which is run by Gusman. The current budget provides more than $22 million for the Sheriff's Office this year.
In its filing, made public Friday, the city accuses the Justice Department, the Sheriff's Office and representatives of the prisoner-plaintiffs in the jail case of collusion in negotiations that didn't include the city. The city also pointed to a financial scandal at the prison. The city's filing came days after two high-ranking officials there, one of whom recently resigned, were charged with taking bribes.
Rather than approve the consent decree, the city argued, the court should place the prison under the authority of a federal receiver.
There is no proof that Gusman, a former City Council member who became sheriff in 2004, cannot run the jail in a constitutional manner without more money from the city, the filing said. "Indeed, the Sheriff, like a dinner guest at an expensive restaurant, seems too carefree about the cost when he knows someone else can be forced to pick-up the tab," the city said.
Enforcing the consent decree at the expense of the city could force the city to cut personnel or services - affecting public safety - the city argued.
The Justice Department has called the prison a "violent and dangerous institution" and said jail officials failed to take basic steps to correct "systemic issues" and "serious constitutional violations" identified in a 2009 report by the department. That report concluded the jail is understaffed and doesn't adequately protect inmates from physical abuse.
In a statement late Friday, Gusman said the city administration "has been very inconsistent."
"Less than a year ago it hailed the Police Consent Decree as a new day for the City of New Orleans. Now it has asked a federal judge to vacate the consent decree and says the city doesn't need it. What happened?
"The responsibility for funding the Orleans Parish Prison is clearly the responsibility of the city administration. The administration was represented during the sheriff's office negotiations with the Department of Justice. The administration needs to show leadership and fulfill its obligation to properly fund the public safety system of this city, which should be its top priority," Gusman said.
The Police Department, meanwhile, was the subject of a scathing report by the Justice Department after a probe that Landrieu asked for shortly after taking office in May 2010. Hiring and training practices; bias against women, gays and racial minorities; brutality and reckless use of deadly force were among the problems listed in a report that followed scandals that included the deaths of unarmed civilians following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A federal hearing is set for March 13 on the city's effort to get out of the police consent decree, which was approved by a federal judge over the city's last-minute objections in January.
Neither Gusman's office nor the Justice Department had filed responses to the city's claims in the jail case as of Friday afternoon. Justice lawyers, in filings in the police case, have denied the city's allegations that they withheld information about the jail case.
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