A Sheriff for the People

A Sheriff for the People

Following her recent victory in New Orleans, Susan Hutson will become the first female Black sheriff in Louisiana history.

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Longtime independent police monitor and criminal justice reformer Susan Hutson seemingly pulled off the impossible on December 11 when she beat incumbent Marlin Gusman to become sheriff-elect of Orleans Parish. Hutson will be the first African-American woman to run the city’s jail—indeed, the first ever female black sheriff in Louisiana history.

Hutson, who served as an independent police monitor at the New Orleans Police Department, survived a primary that saw Gusman nearly reelected on the strength of a 48 percent showing. But she persevered in the general to beat the 17-year incumbent, after running a campaign focused on community engagement, inmate and guard safety, and transparency at the Orleans Parish Prison. All of which, she notes, have been sorely lacking under Gusman’s leadership, and despite an ongoing federal consent decree in place at the downtown jail complex.

Hutson took some time from a holiday event over the weekend to talk to The Nation about her goals and priorities. She says she will focus on what OPP can do for inmates in their custody, “how to take care of them,” and also on training and supporting her staff of deputies and corrections guards—and, critically, to get community buy-in to “right the ship” of a jail system that’s currently under a federal consent decree owing to a history of rampant unconstitutionality.

“Just about every aspect of that jail functions improperly,” Hutson says as she pledges to undertake a baseline audit to determine how to fix things—“whether it’s the civil side, the paid-detail system, the jail itself, the mental health services,” Hutson says. “The amount of money pouring into the jail” hasn’t changed the fact that “people aren’t getting the services they need.”

Some of the problems are basics such as a lack of toilet paper for inmates, or that some inmates didn’t have any clothes, says Hutson, who plans to reassess employees and employment at the jail, with an eye toward an AmeriCorps program in Detroit that helps to train future jailers in a safe and secure way.

Hutson was elected following a long stretch of attempted post-Katrina reforms and upgrades at the jail—including efforts at restorative justice programs, inmate classification reform, a new, state-of-the art, FEMA-funded jail, and other initatives. But the jail, overseen by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO), still has a ways to go before it comes out from federal oversight.

Hutson is getting plenty of headlines for her victory—along with New York City’s new police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, another first for a Black woman—but it’s also worth noting that another criminal justice reformer, Simone Levine, announced last week that she would be leaving the watchdog group Court Watch Nola to become a homicide prosecutor and supervisor at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Levine also brings a people-first ethic and mentality to her new post—and has been a relentless advocate for transparency and accountability in a DA’s office and court system in New Orleans where she will now take on a lead role.

“I’ve always felt that reform needs to come into the day-to-day processes of the DA’s office, says Levine, who starts at the DA’s office in January. She says she’ll be bringing the best-practices models she advocated for at CourtWatch to her new job.

Her goal, says the Brooklyn-born Levine, is to “make sure you have people in place who are as ethical as possible and are trying to regard people as people—justice has to be people-centered,” she says. “You need to take the crime survivor into perspective and the criminal defendant into perspective and see everyone as humans. It should not be a revolutionary concept to hold the people that are engaging in the crime, to hold them as people, or to honor crime survivors’ wishes.”

Levine highlights the work being done on behalf of crime victims by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin as an example of nation-leading best practices on that front. Similarly she credits Cincinnati and Denver law enforcement agencies as pioneering efforts to protect witnesses.

Levine says she’s excited by Hutson’s approach to her job and says it’s been great “to be working with someone who has signed on to so many of the best practices reforms that Court Watch Nola has advocated for.”

Hutson highlighted the safety of inmates and guards alike during her campaign. She’s pledged to make the sheriff’s office more accountable and transparent in its contracting process and procedures. To that end, Hutson has weighed in repeatedly on a persistent contracting issue at the Orleans Parish Prison and at jails around the country: obscenely high rates for inmate phone calls. Hutson has pledged to make inmate phone calls free and will demand greater scrutiny of the current provider, Securus, or whatever company gets the next contract. She says phone calls shouldn’t be a burden on the backs of inmates or their families, citing data that highlights how communication with family members is critical to rehabilitation and efforts at turning back recidivism.

Securus has also been criticized by reformers for recording all inmate phone calls, even with their lawyers. In her work at CourtWatch, Levine tried to dissuade the outgoing sheriff from continuing what she describes as a patently unconstitutional practice. Gusman and his office have claimed that security issues provide the justification for recording calls—but Levine and CourtWatch have argued that the jail should do a better job at maintaining security without violating inmates’ rights.

Hutson herself won’t take office until early May—but expects she’ll be busy between then and now getting to know the deputies and guards who will now report to her and gearing up for an audit of the OPSO books. In the meantime she pledges to continue to build community ties, another key driver, she says, behind her defeat of Gusman.

She’s also keeping a close watch on an ongoing contract negotiation over who is going to provide health care services at the jail. Currently, those services are provided by Wellpath, a for-profit prison-services company that’s controlled by the private equity firm H.I.G. Capital. Wellpath and Gusman were sued after a fatal inmate overdose at OPP earlier this year and the company has faced similar complaints in other facilities around the country this year, including the Sonoma County lockup in California and the Suffolk County jail in Massachusetts. The firm is competing with Louisiana State University, which has its medical school campus near the jail, to see who’ll provide health services moving forward. Hutson says she wishes she could be on the selection committee, but since she’s not taking office for more than four months, she’ll have to abide by the city and current sheriff’s decision.

“I’ve been in this male-dominated world for 17 years in my oversight roles alone,” Hutson says. “People are almost always afraid of oversight and now you have a woman up there too?” Yet she sees her gender as an opportunity to change the culture at OPP within an acknowledgment of the “misogyny of everyday life.”

She notes that the Orleans Parish Prison system has been a historically hostile environment for women who work or who are incarcerated there. Sexual harassment, quid pro quo, the differences in how men and women inmates are treated—she cites a litany of problems at what she describes as a “failed institution” under the former leadership, and one that is primed for a cultural change: “We care for the person and we may have to use force when necessary—proportional and as a last resort. We are not doing the warrior mode of law enforcement anymore.”

Boudin, the San Francisco DA, says the developments in New Orleans are a tremendous step forward—and especially given right-wing backlash against reforming prosecutors. While Boudin highlights the importance of district attorneys as agents for change within the criminal justice system, he also notes that sheriffs are often overlooked in these ongoing efforts.

All the more reason, says Boudin, to celebrate Hutson’s election earlier this month.

“We as DAs can’t achieve changes that constituents deserve and vote for if we go it alone,” he says, adding that “it’s a huge step forward” for the city and broader reform movement to have someone like Hutson poised to take the helm at the OPSO. It’s really heartening, he says, that “progress is being made in a city like New Orleans that has had such a rough history with criminal justice.”

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