Amid a significant staffing shortage and an increase in jail violence, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson asked the New Orleans City Council Monday (Nov. 6) to approve a nearly $13 million increase above what Mayor LaToya Cantrell has proposed for her office in 2024. 

If approved by the council, more than half of that would go towards hiring new recruits, filling administrative openings, and a $2 raise that will bring the hourly salary of local correctional officers close to the national average of just over $20 an hour. 

Getting the council on board might be a long shot. 

This is the second year in a row Hutson has pushed for such an increase. The council rejected her request for an additional allocation of more than $12 million for the 2023 budget year. In April — amid a controversy over Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office spending during the 2023 Carnival season — New Orleans voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase for the agency that would have boosted its revenues by about the same amount. 

Hutson praised her staff for “punching above their weight” but said current levels are  not sustainable as the agency is “dealing with a more violent population and a bigger population” inside the jail.

There are currently 1,238 people housed at the Orleans Justice Center, a 25% increase compared to the same time last year and just 12 below a legal limit set by the New Orleans Council in 2020.

Violence is also on the rise, Hutson told council members. The number of resident-on-resident altercations increased to 336 last year from 179 the year before and resident-on-staff incidents jumped to 44 from 27 during the same period. The percentage of those incidents that resulted in injury rose by nearly 4 points.

Staffing has not kept up with the population increase inside the jail. While the agency had more hires than separations last year, Hutson said, it is still operating at 60% of their ideal staffing levels.

“We have to have somebody with eyes on them at all times,” the sheriff said of those people in custody who are prone to violence in addition to the prisoners struggling with mental health issues. “These are big human resource drains.”

Nearly 40% of people who left the sheriff’s office last year cited pay as the primary reason which is why Hutson said she is asking for about $3.4 million more to increase the average pay for recruits to $43,680.

“All law enforcement is hiring right now so a lot of competition out there,” said Hutson, who recently attended a conference for the National Institute of Corrections where she said she got a better sense of the salaries offered at other departments. “People were paying their deputies starting at $60,000, lots of retention bonuses, lots of compensation to really make them feel appreciated. We’re trying to get close to that gap.”

The meeting on Monday marked the start of the second week of council hearings on Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed 2024 city budget. Cantrell’s budget proposal includes $59.5 million for the sheriff’s office.  Hutson is asking the council for $72.3 million, with the added funds going mostly to personnel costs. 

The council is required to pass a budget by Dec. 1. 

During Monday’s presentation, Councilman Joe Giarusso pressed Hutson on efforts to lower the jail’s population, questioning why the office is currently housing 93 inmates who have been convicted and are in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. (The jail’s primary mission is to house local detainees awaiting trial.)

“If there are people in the jail who don’t need to be there, and can be moved somewhere else … that seems like low hanging fruit,” Giarusso said.

Councilman Oliver Thomas focused on the jail’s 83% recidivism rate, suggesting additional resources be dedicated to ending the continuing cycle of imprisonment for that population.

“I think the penal system has failed them,” Thomas said.

During public comments, Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, slammed the councilmembers for demanding Hutson account for jail’s increased population but did not press the issue with representatives of Criminal District Court, who went over their budget with the council on Monday before Hutson. 

“The sheriff doesn’t control who goes in and who gets out,” Reilly said. “It’s the judges who actually decide.”

Reilly also criticized the $110 million Phase III jail expansion which is designed to provide medical and mental health treatment and is currently under construction following years of back-and-forth between the city, the Sheriff’s Office and the federal court judge who oversees the jail’s decade-long consent decree. (On Monday, an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge ordered work at the site temporarily halted in response to a suit filed by Voice of the Experienced, The Lens reported.)

The projected cost of the facility has ballooned from earlier estimates of about $50 million. 

Last year, the jail experienced just under 300 medical incidents, averaging less than one a day, according to Hutson’s budget presentation.

“That’s a five-minute ambulance ride down to University Hospital,” Reilly said. “You can save a heck of a lot of money by just buying an ambulance.”

This story has been updated to note that on Monday, Nov. 6, a judge ordered work on the Phase III site temporarily halted.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...