NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The New Orleans City Council voted in favor of a plan to expand the city's jail space and allow a third phase to be built. The council's action directs the Planning Commission to examine an expansion plan already approved by a federal judge.
It's a hot button issue pitting jail reform advocates trying to lower incarceration rates against those who believe the city needs additional space to lock up detainees awaiting trial.
It has been six years since a criminal justice committee recommended new limits on New Orleans jail space. At one time, the city had more than 6,000 jail beds. That number now stands at 1438.
Thursday the council considered building a new 89-bed facility to house mentally ill and sick inmates now being sent 80 miles away to be housed at Hunt Correctional in St Gabriel. At a hearing, many stood up to say the current size should be maintained or even lowered. But others said it was time to expand, as recommended by jail compliance director Gary Maynard.
"Though the city has long advocated for retrofitting, and we understood, the current jail was to be retrofitted, the resolution by Maynard is reasonable," said city attorney Rebecca Dietz.
"The reason to keep the jail the size that it is, which is far too big, is that it puts pressure on all the pieces in the system to make a match between the number of beds and the number of people to fill those beds," said prison reform advocate Don Everard.
In the end, the council approved sending a plan to build a new phase three jail to the City Planning Commission. In doing so, the council beat back a last-ditch effort to have those mental health beds placed in the current phase two facility.
If the measure continues to move forward, the new jail for the sick and the mentally ill could be completed by 2019.