Planned ‘sobering center’ for intoxicated never got off the ground

For a city that wraps drunken depravity in a welcome hug, and one with a local jail notorious for unchecked beatings and rapes, it seemed like a pretty sharp idea: to let police chauffeur some of the publicly inebriated to a special place where they could straighten out from a hard bender in safety, skipping a night behind bars.

But just as the new “sobering center” was scheduled to open its doors on Dec. 4, 2011 — with ample support from police, elected leaders and key nonprofit groups — it nosedived like a tippler over a curb.

As the heat turns up this weekend on the 2014 Carnival season, alternatives to arrest for public intoxication in the Big Easy have receded to the back burner of public discussion.

An unexpected state funding roadblock, which backers blamed for shelving the “sobering center” plan, seemed to suck the wind out of an idea that, even back then, supporters considered long overdue.

“I was very disappointed it didn’t come about. It would keep people out of jail who shouldn’t be in jail and perhaps point them in the direction of treatment,” said City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee and has long sought ways to limit the number of people put in jail in New Orleans.

“We invite the world to come here and party, and it seems that we should be able to accommodate them if their only crime is that they’ve drunk too much.”

Now, as before, police take the criminally inebriated to central booking, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said. People arrested for public intoxication generally spend 12 to 24 hours behind bars, or perhaps longer, waiting to appear in Municipal Court. Some get processed and can make bond at a “booking bus” set up outside the 8th District police station in the French Quarter on the final weekend of Carnival.

There are no special accommodations for the alcohol-washed masses.

“If they’re brought in for public drunkenness, there’s no concept of sobering,” a Sheriff’s Office official said.

The plan for the “sobering center,” which was to be run by the Odyssey House addiction center, called for something different. Modeled partly on a program in San Diego that provides the inebriated with a cot, a snack and four hours of downtime, the program here would have given New Orleans police officers the ability to shuttle intoxicated people to a facility on North Claiborne Avenue.

They would have been dropped off and assessed, perhaps given a Valium to taper down and offered guidance for future drug or alcohol treatment. The trip would have been quasi-voluntary, the alternative being Orleans Parish Prison.

The NOPD got behind the idea, as did the Vera Institute of Justice and Odyssey House. Among the benefits, supporters said, would be money saved on jail stays, less time cops would have to spend on arrests and bookings, and fewer corrosive Big Easy memories — and nettlesome arrest records — for bedraggled tourists.

Most arrestees from La.

Bead-splashed visitors were actually expected to be a minority of those treated at the center. According to a study of New Orleans public intoxication arrests from 2010, 69 percent of the arrestees were Louisiana residents.

“It’s also a matter of taking care of our own,” Guidry said. She continues to raise the concept but acknowledged that a funding puzzle remains unsolved.

Ed Carlson, executive director of Odyssey House, said an attempt to fit the program into state health funding schemes failed at the 11th hour, at a time when the state was switching to a managed care system and flexibility was lacking from Baton Rouge.

“The state was very clear: If (people taken to the center) didn’t meet the levels of necessity and didn’t stay for at least a 24-hour period — and they needed to be residents of Louisiana — we could not bill for them. So we wouldn’t get reimbursed,” Carlson said. He estimated at the time that it would cost about $250,000 a year to run the program.

NOPD Assistant Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas said the idea for the center meshed with the view that such arrests are “not a criminal issue” but a safety concern for the intoxicated and those around them.

Issues about liability — if someone left the sobering center, stumbled out onto North Claiborne and got hurt or victimized, for instance — had been largely smoothed over before the expected opening of the center.

“People end up going to jail because there are no other alternatives. That’s why the idea of a sobering center makes sense to everyone,” said Bouyelas, who said he had a training plan in place to help officers assess which drunks should go to the center and which to jail. “Everybody was close. We were really close.”

Police figured the center would likely draw three or four intoxicated visitors a day for dormitory-style digs with a TV, health assessment and testing. But Carlson said there are “probably a lot more people who could be scooped up” for the program rather than carted off to jail.

Asked if there is any political momentum to resuscitate the plan, he said, “At this moment there is none.”

“Obviously we’re not going to get rid of Mardi Gras. We’re not going to get rid of bars being open all the time. We’re not going to get rid of go-cups,” Carlson said. “What we have to do is pay for the consequences. It’s a matter of political will, but the city’s got to put some money in to start it up. It just can’t happen out of thin air.”

Part of a larger puzzle

Carlson said the issue is a piece of a larger puzzle that the city is failing to address with a comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment plan.

The city appears to be taking steps to bootstrap programs for criminal defendants leaving jail with mental illness and connected addiction issues. The city’s Health Department, along with Municipal Court and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is developing a screening and diversion program with services for those populations.

Calvin Johnson, a former Criminal District Court judge who runs the Metropolitan Human Services District, said the idea of a sobering center isn’t dead. He said there are discussions about structuring a similar program through Emergency Medical Services, rather than the NOPD, because EMS workers often are called to respond to inebriated patrons flopping about the French Quarter.

“If it’s a medical issue, then yeah, let’s deal with it from a medical perspective,” Johnson said. He acknowledged that “it’s all still in the talking stage, but the city today, and more importantly my agency today, is better situated to truly make something like this happen.”

As Carnival visitors begin to swarm the city sporting beads and go-cups, Johnson laments the lack of action on the issue.

“People, I know them, the first thing they want to do when they hit New Orleans is go through a drive-through daiquiri shop. So we encourage it. We absolutely encourage it,” Johnson said. “And we don’t have a thing to deal effectively with it.”