Sherlock Holmes solved crimes by process of elimination. "When you have eliminated the impossible," he said, "whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and a group of inmate plaintiffs appear to have embraced that notion in asking a federal judge to place New Orleans jails in receivership.
In trying to get Sheriff Marlin Gusman to bring the city's jails up to constitutional standards and into compliance with a 2013 federal consent decree, the feds have exhausted other options — more money, more time, special monitors and a brand-new jailhouse.
None worked. Gusman's jails remain out of control.
The only option remaining is one that seemed obvious from the start: Gusman should be pushed aside so a competent professional can bring the jails up to snuff.
Last week, the feds and plaintiff attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to impose the "extraordinary remedy" of appointing a receiver to implement the consent decree. Their 61-page brief reads like an indictment of Gusman's ineffectiveness:
"[In March] Cleveland Tumblin died by hanging himself from a known suicide hazard after a mental health evaluation flagged him for mental health follow-up that he did not receive.
"The Sheriff not only has failed or refused to comply with the Consent Judgment, he has proven to be incapable of taking action necessary to comply. Indeed, the Court Monitors report that timely compliance is not possible under the Sheriff's leadership. Urgent and extraordinary action is required of this Court to address the immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth in the Jail. Although there is no question that receivership is an extraordinary remedy, so too is the level of harm that continues to plague the Jail, with no apparent end in sight."
For his part, Gusman continues to strike a defiant pose. He asked Africk for more money, then issued a statement claiming the plaintiff's motion was riddled with "inaccuracies and misleading statements." He promises to aggressively defend his record of progress in court. The sheriff's formal response is due May 10, and the feds can reply by May 16. The issue will come to a head at an evidentiary hearing that begins May 25.
The judge will no doubt weigh all arguments before ruling, but this much is clear: As the enforcer of the consent decree, Africk holds in his hands the fate of the jails — and their inmates. He does not want any more deaths on his watch.
Africk has been more than patient with Gusman, who thus far has produced more excuses than progress. Placing a jail in receivership is the atomic bomb of legal remedies, but it is no silver bullet. It is, however, a definitive way around Gusman's ineptitude.
Meanwhile, the feds have charged several of Gusman's high-ranking underlings with corruption. The sheriff himself has not been implicated, but that's about the only jailhouse scandal he has dodged.
Is all of that enough to war- rant receivership?
In light of all other attempted (and failed) remedies, the answer seems, well, elementary.