Judge denies city’s attempt to halt Phase III jail construction

The judge presiding over the New Orleans jail’s federal consent decree on Wednesday denied an…

The judge presiding over the New Orleans jail’s federal consent decree on Wednesday denied an attempt by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell to halt the construction of a controversial proposed jail facility, known as Phase III, while an appeal of the court’s January order directing the city to move forward with the facility is pending. 

The denial by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk was expected. About a month ago, a federal magistrate judge who has been handling the matter, Michael North, issued a harshly worded report that recommended that the request be denied on procedural  grounds, admonished the city for attempting to delay construction, and accused it of ignoring the needs of people with serious mental illness who are housed in the jail. 

“In service of its decision to avoid at all costs the commitments to this Court, the other parties, and our community that it made more than four years ago, the City and its attorneys have unleashed another progression of disjointed and unconvincing arguments asking the Court stay the effect of the orders the City says required it to ‘build a jail,’” North wrote. 

Africk’s order on Wednesday adopted North’s report and recommendation without elaboration. 

In a statement, City Attorney Sunni Lebeof said that the city would abide by the court’s order to move forward with the building pending appeal, but reiterated the city’s position that the new facility is not necessary.  

“The City maintains that a new jail building in Orleans Parish is not necessary to meet consent decree requirements, especially given our significantly declined inmate population, and enormous investment in medical and mental health services for our OPSO inmates,” the statement reads. “Moreover, many City and State officials have expressed a desire not to expand the Orleans Parish jail and to avoid overinvestment in incarceration. Given the denial of the City’s Motion to Stay, however, the City will comply with the Court’s Order while awaiting a ruling on the City’s pending appeal.”

The city has been making the case since June of last year that the 89-bed, $51-million facility, meant to house detainees with serious mental health and medical issues, is impractical and unnecessary.

The city has cited the cost of the facility as a major problem. About $36 million would be covered by post-Katrina funding from FEMA, according to attorneys representing the Cantrell administration, leaving the city to cover the remainder. The city has also argued that the jail is already providing improved mental health and medical care at the current jail. 

During a hearing last year, attorneys representing the city presented an alternative plan that would retrofit a floor of the current jail building to house those prisoners. That plan has been pushed by a number of criminal justice reform groups and was recently endorsed in a resolution passed by the New Orleans City Council earlier this month. 

But other parties to the consent decree litigation, including the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights lawyers representing the plaintiff class of people detained in the jail, have argued that the retrofit option presented by the city is not a viable alternative. The judges have agreed. In a report issued last December, Magistrate North called the city’s retrofit plan  “not a viable option in any way, shape, or form.”

Attorneys for the city have argued that they first need approval from the City Council, following a recommendation from the City Planning Commission, to build the facility. Given the recent resolution, it’s unclear whether or not the council will give that approval.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration agreed to build the facility in 2017. When Landrieu administration officials asked the council to move the proposal to the planning commission, then-City Attorney Rebecca Dietz suggested that if they failed to do so, they may be held in contempt of court.

The council at the time voted to send plans to the planning commission, but those plans were never submitted until last month. The City Planning Commission is set to hold a public hearing on the facility in August, according to a recent court filing from the city.