NOVEMBER 21, 2011 / BY MATT NELSON Lift up, don't lock up New Orleans

Last February, New Orleans ColorOfChange members helped secure a monumental victory for the city's future. We worked with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition to force the City Council to vote unanimously to stop the construction of an outrageous 5,800-bed prison and cap the size of Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) at 1,438 beds. This marked a major step in reforming New Orleans' criminal justice system. But a critical component to maintaining this progress depends on ending the per diem funding system, a policy that pays the Sheriff to lock up more residents for more days. 

New Orleans is the only major city in the United States that funds its jail based on a per diem system, billing the city $22.39 per day for every individual held at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). Much like the model for private prisons, this has created a perverse incentive to keep more people in jail on a daily basis. More prisoners for more days equals more money for the Sheriff's budget.

New Orleans has been notorious for locking up a higher percentage of its adult population than any other large city in the nation. Stories abound of men and women going to jail for offenses that routinely only merit tickets in other cities. Local advocates argue that the jail's funding structure encouraged police to make arrests for these types of low-level offenses.

Like cities across the country, New Orleans is facing a fiscal crisis and in turn has placed valuable social services on the chopping block for 2012. A look at the proposed budget for next year shows that costs related to criminal justice make up 61% of the city's general fund, compared to just 3% for services for children and families.

Allowing the per diem funding system to continue would subvert the tremendous public support for a smaller jail. Allowing this current broken system to continue would also keep taxpayer dollars from being invested in programs that would actually improve public safety.

The Mayor and the Council have all agreed that the per diem system should end. But they haven’t yet demonstrated the leadership needed to make this happen. Join ColorOfChange and thousands of New Orleans residents who are calling on Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council to reject per diem funding for OPP and invest instead in the city's real needs and priorities.