During today's regular meeting, the City Council adopted Resolution R-22-85, stressing the Council's continued support for a retrofit of the existing jail over the alternative plan to construct a new "Phase III" jail facility.
The debate about the jail's future comes years after parties to the Consent Agreement agreed to improve housing for inmates with mental health needs, along with an infirmary and programming and counseling space. Though the City remains under federal court order to proceed with Phase III, the Council plans formal submissions to the court and federal agencies to show that a retrofit would better serve inmates' mental health needs without compromising public safety.
"Rather than funneling money into buildings and jail beds, we should be focusing our resources on addressing the root causes of crime like mental health care, education, job training, permanent supportive housing, and lack of similar resources," said Councilmember Harris, who represents District "B" where the jail sits."The retrofit is about one-fifth of the cost of the Phase III plan, allowing us to use City funding to better our community more effectively."
The Council took up the resolution immediately after deferring action on Zoning Docket 99/21, which contemplated amendments to the land use ordinance covering the jail. Under the City's zoning code, this deferral means that the application is denied. Councilmember Harris led the Council's deferral effort, citing principles of federalism.
"Phase III was a bargain – a contract – that the prior mayoral administration, the sitting sheriff, and a plaintiff class of inmates made with one another to 'improve' our jail," Councilmember Harris explained."The federal courts enforce that contract, and the City's hands are tied in following those orders, irrespective of whether our municipal zoning is aligned."
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will consider the City's plea to allow for a retrofit in March when oral arguments are scheduled. To bolster the case that Phase III is unnecessary and that constitutional care for inmates, especially those with mental health needs, can occur at a retrofitted jail, the Council will file an amicus brief with the court. Additionally, the Council will engage with the U.S. Department of Justice and FEMA to advance the retrofit option.
"We are committed to an ongoing dialogue with criminal justice stakeholders to take all other legal steps to further our interest in the retrofit," Councilmember Harris concluded."But in doing so, we must respect the orders of the Court."
The regular meeting is still being held virtually and is available for viewing at council.nola.gov.