A Tipping Point for the Mental Health Crisis in New Orleans

The Vera Institute of Justice calls on the MacArthur Justice Center to collaborate on a new compliance plan to address treatment for people with acute and sub-acute mental health needs in the New Orleans jail and wider community.

July 12, 2023

Contact: Trip Eggert | teggert@vera.org | (212) 376-3157, ext. 1033

As the City of New Orleans grapples with the mounting costs of its proposed Phase III jail for people with mental health needs, Will Snowden, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Louisiana office, issued the following statement:

“We are at a tipping point for the mental health crisis in New Orleans. We can lean forward into the evidence-based best practices of today by building a mental health crisis treatment center based in and serving our community, or we can build the draconian panopticon known as Phase III, a jail for people with acute and sub-acute mental health conditions. Our community, mental health professionals, advocates, lawyers, sheriff, city council, and mayor are all consumed with the fight over how to bring the New Orleans jail into compliance with a federal consent decree over dangerous conditions and inadequate mental health care.

“Federal Magistrate Judge Michael B. North has made it clear that from a legal perspective, the fight over Phase III is over. But this jail remains unbuilt, with the proposed cost mounting by the day. That means a different compliance plan is still possible—if, and only if, all of the parties agree.

The crisis our city faces requires earnest collaboration among the City of New Orleans, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the MacArthur Justice Center, and the Department of Justice. While the MacArthur Justice Center lawyers remain loyal to the incarcerated people for whom they advocate, they continue to push for Phase III though the proposed facility is unlikely to cure the current compliance deficiencies in our jail they have consistently raised in legal filings. Beyond that, it cannot meaningfully serve or prevent future people with serious mental illnesses from being brought to jail. Instead, the crisis in the Orleans Justice Center is likely to be exacerbated by adding another facility that is poorly designed and will struggle to be appropriately staffed.

“The health reality is this: jails are not conducive environments for people with serious mental health needs to receive treatment. And the fiscal reality is that New Orleans cannot afford to waste $114 million on just 90 beds across 56 cells in the Phase III jail building—more than $2 million per cell.

“The MacArthur Justice Center, the Department of Justice, the City of New Orleans, and the Sheriff’s office can build a compliance plan together. The Sheriff has offered a plan that makes adjustments to already existing jail facilities and supports the creation of a community-based inpatient mental health crisis center.

“A colleague in this work described this battle as trying to fight cancer by building cemeteries. We can only truly address our escalating mental health crisis with preventative and accessible community-based treatment, not incarceration. The Vera Institute of Justice calls on MacArthur Justice Center to collaborate on a new compliance plan that will prevent its class of clients who languish in jail from growing by addressing the critical lack of sufficient community-based mental health care in New Orleans.”


About the Vera Institute of Justice: The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit vera.org.

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