Louisiana Attorney General-elect Charles Foti Jr. got caught between two budgets last week -- his first as the state's chief legal officer and his last as the outgoing criminal sheriff of Orleans Parish. "It's sort of bittersweet," Foti said during last week's city council budget hearings, speaking about his pending departure from the elective office he has held for nearly 30 years. Indeed. City council members clamored to praise him, community activists tried to bury him, and Mayor Ray Nagin recommended Foti receive only $29.7 million next year for housing an average of 3,670 city inmates daily -- roughly half of the parish prison population.
"That's $4 million short of what we need," Foti told the council. Foti receives a court-mandated $22.39 a day for food, lodging and medical care of each city prisoner.
The Nagin administration says it will save $3 million that normally would go to the jail, by funding a Municipal Court hearing officer on weekends to release arrestees "when appropriate," by urging police to consider summons for city offenses instead of jail, and using home incarceration as an alternative to incarceration. The city charter requires the council to approve a final operating budget by Dec. 1.
Foti also blasted the Nagin administration for excluding his 850 employees (as well as employees of the sheriff, juvenile court, traffic court and the district attorney's office) from participation in an enhanced city health insurance program. "It is discrimination" against all parish employees, Foti said of the Nagin proposal. City CAO Charles Rice told the council the proposal is not discriminatory and is necessary to avoid balancing the budget without layoffs.
Foti has also drawn fire from activists Jay Arena and Albert "Chui" Clark for allegedly failing to respond to public records requests for information about the sheriff's use of prison labor and a former alternative school for troubled youths. Arena later said he and Clark will meet with the sheriff's office this week. Adam Panitch, a spokesperson for Unity for the Homeless, says that inmates are often denied their constitutional right to appear before a magistrate within 48 hours after arrest. The sheriff says the 7,000 inmates are processed as quickly as possible.
Councilman-at-large Eddie Sapir, who may run for sheriff, asked Foti to provide information on a longstanding complaint -- the time it takes to discharge arrested people who have made bond or otherwise been ordered released. Sapir also asked if Foti could explore expediting the release of hundreds of "young kids with no offense history" who get arrested for drunken misconduct in the city each year. "Absolutely," Foti replied. "We'll get you some paper on that."
Foti, who will be sworn in as attorney general on Jan. 12, says he is reviewing the state budget for his first year in office that was submitted to Gov. Mike Foster's administration by outgoing Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. That budget takes effect when the state fiscal year begins on July 1, 2004. "There's no time to change anything, we're just reviewing it," Foti told Gambit Weekly.
During the coming weeks, the sheriff says, he will be appointing a transition team to review the duties of the attorney general's office. "The purpose (of the task force) is to look at the way things are and the way things should be," says Foti, who plans to appoint an interim director of the prison system "after Thanksgiving." Foti also says he will continue his annual Thanksgiving dinner for the elderly and he will try to continue his Halloween Haunted House.