Councilmember calls out Orleans Sheriff for withholding jail data

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 5:57 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - During ongoing budget negotiations, New Orleans Councilman Joe Giarrusso said Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson threw councilmembers a curveball: Freezing the council out of jail data that is required to be released under city law.

As part of its efforts toward furthering transparency in the criminal justice system, New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance requiring all criminal justice stakeholders, from OPSO to NOPD to District Attorney Jason Williams’ office, to release raw data to a centralized data repository. The data is redacted to exclude personal identifiers before being released to the council.

“Without the data in our servers, that our employees manage and create, the criminal court would not function, the criminal clerk would not function, and the data that this own city council puts on your website, would not exist,” Sheriff Hutson told councilmembers last week.

But council data analyst Jeff Asher said he lost access to the data sometime last week.

“We want to see what’s going on. We want to avoid the finger-pointing. We want to help be a partner with them and improve processes,” Giarrusso said. “The sheriff’s office unilaterally cut off our data analyst’s ability to check what that data is.”

The jail data includes inmate population numbers at the Orleans Justice Center, demographic information including age, race, and gender, as well as the number of arrests and charges.

But OPSO said late Tuesday that access had been restored, blaming Asher’s team for not logging into the system for four weeks.

“Because the data has been accessed infrequently by the contractors, our system is designed to deny access to the AS400 due to inactivity. This provides a layer of protection to ensure the data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,” said Sheriff Hutson. “Since learning about the system access issue, our technical team has been working to restore the City Council’s access to our data. We should have their connection restored by the end of the day.”

But both Giarrusso and Asher said Asher’s team is supposed to be on a list of accounts guaranteed access to data, regardless of login frequency.

“It’s important to be able to show the public what’s happening in the jail and where the money is being spent,” Giarrusso said. “I don’t understand the value of trying to hide things from the public that is very publicly available. That should be available to the public. And why you would deny the council that kind of access?”

Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he believes retaliation may be in play as Hutson’s $13 million budget increase request hangs in the balance.

“I can’t say definitively, but there’s certainly the appearance that this may be retaliatory,” Goyeneche said. “She pledged to be the transparent accountable sheriff, and everything that we’ve seen since she’s been there has been the opposite of transparency and accountability.”

In their statement, an OPSO spokesperson said the agency did not violate city ordinance and its actions to restore data access remain “in keeping with the spirit of the ordinance requiring the Sheriff’s Office to share data with the City Council or its consultants.”

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