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FROM: The Advocate

Pass reforms for juveniles

Almost zero controversy in the state Senate Wednesday over passage of a major reform of the juvenile justice system in Louisiana reflects not only the careful spadework of lawmakers and officials, but a widespread acknowledgment that change is critical.

The reform bills would close the mismanaged Tallulah prison as a juvenile facility and focus, as have other states, on alternatives to jail for young people who get in trouble.

The model for the package of reforms is Missouri, where then-Gov. John Ashcroft -- now President Bush's attorney general -- closed high-security juvenile facilities and created a new system that tried to rehabilitate young offenders who can be saved.

Few senators, it seems, felt it advisable to get to the right of Ashcroft on this issue. Even a former prosecutor, Sen. Art Lentini, R-Kenner, said that Louisiana's juvenile justice system needs dramatic change. "If you take a juvenile like that and lock them up, they're not going to come out a productive citizen," Lentini said.

We agree and applaud the senators who have taken a lead on pushing wide-ranging reforms instead of just tinkering with the system. While the hard work of building consensus on the proposals is a credit to many, the leadership of Sens. Don Cravins, D-Arnaudville, and John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, president of the Senate, had a lot to do with the success of the proposals.

In the House, Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, will handle the package, which was endorsed without objection by a House committee Wednesday.

We hope that lawmakers on the House floor also look favorably on the proposals. They involve some ideas that could be controversial, including the creation of a new state agency.

To move jurisdiction for offenders out of the state's corrections department, one of the largest prison systems in the nation, and into an entirely new state department that would focus solely on children, youth and families is a big change. The reform package sets up a panel of state officials charged with planning the new department.

If approved by the Legislature, the new department will come up with a "system for funding community-based services."

That must happen if Louisiana is to avoid repetition of national embarrassments that have included reports of brutality and abuse at the Tallulah prison. That prison was built, by the way, through an outrageous boondoggle contract that will see the state pay for the facility's construction and then turn it back over to the private owners when the bonds are paid off.

Sadly, there seems little way to get out of the Tallulah contract, although we believe that it would be the right thing to do. If it is legally possible, we hope state officials do it. But if the state must continue to pay, perhaps it can use the Tallulah facility for adult offenders.

The operating costs of the Tallulah prison then could be used for the expansion of community-based services.

There might always be a place for a higher-security facility for some truly dangerous juvenile offenders. But the fact of today's system was summarized by Cravins in the Senate debate: "Louisiana uses its prisons to take a bad kid and make him a worse criminal."

That must change.



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