OUR VIEW: Jail vote vital for Lafourche

Lafourche Parish needs a new jail, and this is beyond debate.

The matters of how to fund construction and how many beds to install, however, are very much relevant.

Residents, who already pay a higher sales-tax rate than the national average, are being asked to commit for 30 years to a 0.2-percent bump.

Lafourche Sheriff Craig Webre intends to build a 600-bed jail. He based that need on the opinions of separate consultants who agreed the parish would need that much space by the time doors open on a new facility, and to him, the debate over the size issue is solved.

Both consultants’ estimations deserve scrutiny, and a close look at both of them turns up questionable details.

One consultant is also an architect who was lobbying for the design contract. Webre himself criticized the parish’s approach last fall, as it amounted to a reverse-engineering of size and needs based upon how much money could be redirected from the library system.

The second consultant forecasted a baseline 76-percent increase in prison usage over 17 years before figuring in a 22-percent increase via less suppression measures and a second 20 percent increase to include enough room for peak housing requirements. Compiled in 2009, it was updated in January, but its updates are scarce and it remains inconclusive on how Lafourche’s actual crime rate is changing or will change.

The debate over needed size cedes to a debate over how a jail relates to its community. Should one-fifth of the inmate total be people not yet convicted of a misdemeanor crime? The sheriff says yes, and a civil-liberties advocate says no.

Three samples of the detention center’s population on three separate days each showed that at least 20 percent of the population were suspected misdemeanor offenders. Remove the so-called suppression tactics, which specifically reduces the number of pre-trial misdemeanants, and that ratio will rise.

The vote is May 3, less than two weeks from today. No more studies will be released before then. The electorate is armed with many facts, and 600 is a number set in stone for this election.

But this doesn’t have to be a referendum on that one figure – like say last November’s jail tax election boiled down to the philosophical role of a library in the community.

Sheriff Webre has taken the responsibility to provide himself with a safe and sufficient jail, although that is statutorily a parish function. He recognizes there is a problem, and he’s trying to fix it.

Webre has also indicated openness to rolling the sales tax back if parish government later finds a way to replace it with an alternative revenue stream. We hope this statement is true, and that he will remain open minded and transparent shouldn’t passw.

We remain unconvinced that 600 beds are needed in Lafourche. Whether this tax is approved or rejected, before a design is drafted, Lafourche residents deserve a conclusive and comprehensive needs assessment to replace the two Webre cited: one being byproduct of a conflict of interest and the other a study that reached no conclusion on the actual crime rate.