Experts sound the alarm over Garber’s cuts to diversion programs

Man in beige police uniform
Sheriff Mark Garber Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: After what his office called “repeated attempts to secure critical funding for daily operations,” Sheriff Mark Garber confirmed Tuesday that he is cutting 42 mostly corrections jobs from his workforce of 748. A press release announcing the reduction in personnel included more cuts to diversion programs started and expanded under his predecessor and long held up as successful models of prison reform and reintegration.

Get caught up, quickly. A law enforcement sales tax Garber championed was shot down in 2018, so the sheriff turned to Lafayette Consolidated Government in September, asking for $1.75 million a year to pay for 35 positions at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center that are  currently funded by the sheriff’s office. At the urging of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, the council denied the request and Garber sued the following month, claiming the parish has been delinquent in its state-mandated financial obligations to the sheriff for years. About six weeks later, Garber abruptly shuttered the Juvenile Assessment Center, one of many so-called diversion programs, and the dominoes have been falling ever since.

Some criminal justice experts are sounding the alarm. Loss or reduction of sheriff-run programs like JAC, Alternative Sentencing and Transitional Work, which allows minimum-security offenders to work in the community while serving their sentences, strain an “already fragile [criminal justice] ecosystem,” says Holly Howat, the former executive director for the Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. Founded in 2013 under then-Sheriff Mike Neustrom to study the parish’s juvenile and adult criminal justice system, CJCC includes stakeholders who gather data, identify deficiencies and propose formulated and coordinated plans for cross-agency policies and processes.

Howat says drawing down the diversion programs could clog up a strained justice system. She likens the reduction of services to the financing crisis that hamstrung the public defender’s office in 2016 which caused “long dockets and jail crowding.” 

Any time you make changes in one segment of the criminal justice system, it has a domino effect on all the other parts of it,” Howat says. “A risk of the sheriff’s office actions is to disrupt what was already the fragile ecosystem that is our criminal justice system.” Howat, who left her role with the CJCC in late June, says she hopes the committee can continue to function as “a place for communication and coordination to ensure public safety and justice in Lafayette’s criminal justice system.”

The public defender’s office echoes those concerns. In a letter to the editor published in Wednesday’s Acadiana Advocate, District Public Defender G. Paul Marx argues that cutting programs that work to rehabilitate offenders will have long-term and costly consequences for local government. 

“Kids in trouble won’t get services that are proven to help them,” Marx writes, noting that the Juvenile Detention Center is already underfunded. “…Lafayette is reaching a critical breaking point. It’s long past time for our political leaders to get real about the costs related to an effective public safety program.”

Garber has reduced corrections personnel by 31% since taking office. That includes about 38 of the 42 employees subject to the layoffs announced this week. PIO John Mowell says Garber’s priorities haven’t changed since he took the reins from Neustrom in mid-2016. “He has always made it clear that we will focus on our core (mandated) responsibilities,” Mowell says in a written response. “Those are enforcement, corrections (running the parish jail), service of process, executing warrants and collecting taxes.” The Neustrom administration had 746 employees, 463 classified as working in corrections and 283 in non-corrections, which includes enforcement and administration. Garber now has 706 employees, with 320 assigned to corrections and 386 assigned to non-corrections.

Garber maintains he is committed to reinstating the alternative programs. “The programs that have been impacted are all valuable to our community,” his spokesman Mowell says. “We are optimistic that we can find other stakeholders who benefit from them to be part of the long-term solution so we can get them back up and running as soon as possible.”

There have been reports of animosity between Garber and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. Robideaux cut off funding for the Juvenile Assessment Center in 2017 (interim Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter attributed the missed payments to a legal issue with invoicing) and continues to clash with the sheriff over funding mandates. 

Measures to restore some of the funding are before the council. Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who works under contract for the sheriff’s department, is sponsoring one ordinance to transfer $600,000 of Juvenile Detention Home funds to JAC.

Boudreaux’s ordinance and another one sponsored by LCG’s legal department authorizing Robideaux to enter into an intergovernmental agreement to provide housing for city prisoners were introduced Tuesday and are up for final adoption Dec. 17.

Altogether, the ordinances provide an additional $860,000 for the jail and sheriff’s office; the funding is a combination of city ($250,000) and parish ($601,000) monies

Boudreaux’s role came under fire for a potential conflict of interest. Activist conservative organization Citizens for a New Louisiana suggested Boudreaux’s involvement was potentially illegal, given his work relationship with the sheriff. In response, the sheriff’s office released opinions from state authorities, some dating back to 2016, giving Boudreaux the OK to serve as a councilman while under contract with the sheriff. An emergency opinion issued by the Louisiana Board of Ethics in September cleared Boudreaux’s involvement in funding decisions concerning the sheriff’s office during LCG’s annual budget process.

Why this matters: There is widespread concern among various corners of the criminal justice system that Garber’s priorities aren’t in line with his predecessor’s, which were heavily focused on diversion and rehabilitation programming and mental health care — all of which have taken hold across the country to reduce mass incarceration. Garber has increased the patrol force from 43 deputies under Neustrom to 51 (with seven more positions allocated for) and is patrolling the city, work traditionally handled by the Lafayette Police Department; he also invested in the creation of a full-time SWAT team, which some view as a duplication of services offered by city and state police. Mowell defends the latter, saying the office reorganized existing assets. “[Garber] replaced the warrants unit with SWAT members to create this full-time team; however, they perform the same function as the previous warrants unit,” he says. “The difference is they are ‘available’ to respond to a SWAT type incident faster because they are on the road.”