A new, progressive sheriff in New Orleans

TI HAVE ARRIVED of a new sheriff is not always a joyous occasion—at least in the films of John Ford or Clint Eastwood. Usually, it means something has gone terribly wrong. But in New Orleans it is another chance for a parade.

On May 2nd a crowd lined Canal Street as marching bands, sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles and costumed revellers reminiscent of Mardi Gras headed towards the Mississippi. They were escorting the city’s new sheriff, Susan Hutson, to her inauguration. After defeating a 17-year incumbent, Marlin Gusman, in last year’s election, Ms Hutson is the first female sheriff in New Orleans’s 304-year history, and the first African-American female sheriff in the state of Louisiana.

Her reward is to oversee the Orleans Justice Center, a jail with a history of violence and mismanagement. Ms Hutson promises a more humane approach to the incarcerated. Though she is not the first such progressive sheriff, Ms Hutson’s new jurisdiction is among the largest. Her experience of her will be closely watched.

Faced with overcrowding in the 1970s, Louisiana shifted many inmates from state prisons to city jails. The New Orleans jail population swelled, peaking at more than 6,000 in 2005. Hurricane Katrina that year brought nightmarish reports of inmates waist-deep in flood water. Violence, organized crime and poor sanitation plagued the jail for years. Following a class-action lawsuit brought by ten prisoners, Mr Gusman agreed to a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2012, under which the sheriff’s office promised to improve conditions. The presiding federal district-court judge, Lance Africk, described the jail as “an indelible stain on the community.”

A decade later, the consent decree has still not been lifted. The jail, though it now has just under 1,000 inmates, remains dangerous. Force is often used to break up fights. An average of three inmates a year have died in custody since 2014, nearly all from drug overdoses, suicide or preventable medical emergencies. Short staffing and high turnover lead to lapses in security. A surge in crime may put the jail under even greater pressure. More than 90 murders have been recorded in New Orleans this year, the worst four-month stretch to start a year since 2005.

Unlike most sheriffs, Ms Hutson has never served in law enforcement. From 2010 she worked as the independent monitor for the New Orleans Police Department, itself under a consent decree since 2012. “I don’t look at everything through a blue lens, but I’ve worked around law enforcement long enough to know the standards ,” she says. Inspired by the protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, she decided to challenge Mr Gusman.

Her campaign stressed improving medical services for prisoners, including mental health. She pledged to give them full visitation rights, minimize the use of force by deputies and provide housing that accords with an inmate’s self-identified gender. She also vowed to bring the office into compliance with the consent decree. But she opposes a $50m expansion of the jail that would add 89 beds for mental-health services, the construction of which was ordered by Judge Africk and supported by Mr Gusman. Ms Hutson argues that the money would be better spent on upgrading the city’s dilapidated structures and she will seek to appeal against the move.

So after the festivities, she will have her hands full. “Jails are like big freighter ships moving down the Mississippi, they need continuous attention to shift course,” says Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. If the city’s crime surge continues, residents may become more receptive to Ms Hutson’s critics, who believe a gentler approach to inmates will only embolden criminals. In the films, it is not long before a new sheriff faces a showdown.

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