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Unify command to improve jail performance

Plenty of reasons abound to end the experiment known as the Union Parish Detention Center Commission.

Prior to commencing its operations, the state passed a law removing it from the authority of the parish sheriff. Uniquely among Louisiana jails, it does not have a constitutionally-specified entity controlling it, but a committee comprised of the sheriff, the (3rd Judicial) District Attorney, police chief of the city hosting it Farmerville, a member of the Union Parish Police Jury elected by its members, and the president of the Police Jury. It contracts with the sheriff to operate the facility and legally is considered a component of parish government run by the Police Jury as that body funds it.

And it’s weathered a lot of bad public relations, right from the start. Initially, the Commission contracted to a private operator, whose efforts proved so slack that most work-release inmates found access to consume illegal drugs. This led to yanking that program that returned in 2015, as well as eventual takeover by the sheriff.

Worse, two years ago a combination of poor procedures and decisions made by personnel led to the rape of an underage female incarcerated there. And in this period, in contravention of federal law, the facility held an HIV-positive inmate in isolation for six months that forced a settlement with the federal government.

Even as authorities have maintained changes have occurred to prevent recurrence of the incidents, another shadow looms over the center’s operation: its chronic deficit spending. The fund set up for it by the parish for years has operated with a negative balance, with 2016 (from the latest audit) exacerbating the situation by piling another $800,000 of red ink on top of a balance nearly a million bucks in the hole. The Police Jury had to dip into its general fund to cancel out the latter – technically, illegal in the state.

Restarting the work-release program added to the bottom line, but only around $300,000. By contrast, with the state’s criminal justice reforms likely reducing the number of state inmates – comprising roughly half of the Center’s population at any given time – this means the largest source of funding by far may slip. And, to top it all off, the latest audit uncovered sloppy financial transaction tracking.

In the rape case, officials then employed at the jail used inadequate funding as the excuse to explain the myriad of security failures that led to the event. Likely the changed protocols led to increased expenditures that will aggravate even more the deficit posture that began well before that crime.

While the committee governance may not have caused such lapses and the jail’s unsatisfactory financial standing, that both monetary and operational fiascos have occurred multiply under its watch suggests that organizational structure does not help. Unified command, instead of representation of four different local governments, probably better equips whoever runs the facility to make it run right and in the green – or, at the very least in the case of the Police Jury, in a way that doesn’t violate state statute.

Nearby Jackson Parish has its police jury run its version, and in most parishes sheriffs have the honor. The Legislature should abolish the Commission and place its governance in the hands of the Police Jury or sheriff; if not possible this current regular legislative session, then as soon as it can.

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