Jails Paid Per Prisoner? That’s Perverse, Say NOLA Advocates

Orleans Parish Prison receives money based on how many inmates are detained each day. And go figure, it's got the largest county jail per capita of any major U.S. city.

By Noelle de la Paz Dec 01, 2011

In New Orleans, efforts to reform the criminal justice system have recently gained considerable traction. In February, the umbrella organization Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) achieved a major victory when the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to approve the construction of a smaller jail, capping the number of beds at 1,438 instead of building a 5,800-bed facility.

Now, advocates are working to undo the per diem prison funding system, wherein Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) receives money based on how many inmates are detained each day.

According to the Louisiana Justice Institute, New Orleans is the only major U.S. city, and one of only two jurisdictions nationwide, that finances its jail through a per diem system. This means that instead of having a fixed budget like other city entities, the Sheriff’s Office receives $22.39 per inmate per day.

OPP is also the largest per capita county jail of any major U.S. city, boasting 3,500 beds in a city of about 350,000 residents. "About 2,700 people in the jail are mostly pre-trial detainees–the majority being held for drug possession, traffic violations, public drunkenness, or other nonviolent offenses–and are legally innocent," reports New Orleans journalist Jordan Flaherty in his article at the Huffington Post.

A majority of inmates come from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Many are swept up for minor offenses by a city police force that’s notorious for racial profiling. Additionally, members of the city’s Criminal Justice Working Group have noted that at OPP African American inmates’ average length of stay is 23 days, double that of white inmates booked for the same charges.

These disturbing racial disparities further highlight the fact that OPP is not operating effectively and is wasting public funds.

"Per diem funding creates a perverse incentive to lock up more people for longer periods of time," OPPRC member and JJPL Executive Director Dana Kaplan told Colorlines.com. In contrast to New Orleans’ deeply problematic per diem funding, Kaplan identifies cities with a fixed budget such as New York. "The incentive there is to keep the [prison] population low to manage more effectively."

Norris Henderson, a reform committee member and Executive Director of the organization Voice of The Ex-Offender, also points to the problem of "double funding," OPP’s practice of keeping people overnight to ensure that the city pays for a two-day detention. "Say someone is put in jail at 10pm," Henderson said in an interview. "That person is guaranteed to stay until the next morning, because even if they get out at 12:02 the jail is paid for both days."

The costs are further muddled by the $22.39 figure. Henderson elaborates, "For every person in jail who uses the telephone, or the canteen–those have costs." The Louisiana Justice Institute estimates the actual figure to be over $30, when taking into account the costs of health care and staffing. This brings the number to $27.5 million this year.

That’s a looming figure in the city’s proposed budget for next year, which shows that costs related to criminal justice make up 61 percent of the city’s general fund, compared to just 3 percent for services for children and families.

On Tuesday, the reform coalition held a press conference and action to deliver over 2,200 signatures to the City Council and Mayor Landrieu. The reform committee used doorknocking and outreach to collect local signatures, and worked once again with online advocacy group ColorOfChange.org to spread an online petition that also generated over 700 emails to the City Council. They are demanding that the mayor and City Council commit to two major policy changes.

The first is for Mayor Mitch Landrieu to cap the size of the new facility being built by the Sheriff’s Office at 1,438 beds. The second is that the City Council reject the Sheriff’s budget, which is based on a per diem structure (meaning the city pays per inmate per day) and replace it with a fixed budget based on performance measures.

Around fifty people showed up at City Hall to deliver the petitions, including community members, formerly incarcerated individuals, and faith leaders. Heading up the press conference and action were several OPPRC organizations such as the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, whose spokesperson Denis Soriano addressed the crowd on behalf of the coalition and the immigrant community.

OPPRC has not yet heard back from the council or the mayor. "We are asking for a formal response by Thursday. That’s when the council votes on the city budget for 2012," said Kaplan.