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FROM: The Advocate

Juvenile justice reform approved


A much-maligned juvenile prison in Tallulah would undergo minor changes and still accept youthful offenders under a proposal put forth by the state's corrections chief.

But one of the chief sponsors of a juvenile justice reform bill, passed Monday and aimed at taking juveniles out of the Tallulah facility, said the proposal defies the will of lawmakers.

Department of Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder said the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit would no longer accept inmates treated as juveniles.

Instead, the facility, set up to handle inmates under 21 years old, could still be used for youthful offenders treated as adults by the judicial system, Stalder said.

"It really doesn't matter if that adolescent came in as an adult or a juvenile," Stalder said. "He's still the same 18-year-old, and his problems are still the same."

The proposal to keep any youthful offenders at the controversial facility drew the ire of Sen. Don Cravins, D-Arnaudville, a sponsor of a juvenile justice reform bill.

"He either follows the will and intent of the legislation, or we need to find another alternative for him: looking for another job," Cravins said.

The House approved House Bill 2018 on Monday, which requires the state to turn the juvenile prison in Tallulah into an adult prison within 18 months.

Along with taking juveniles out of Tallulah, the bill would form a commission to set up a new juvenile justice department, which would pull together entities spread among several state departments, including corrections, education and social services.

HB2018, sponsored by Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, cleared the House 104-0. The Senate previously passed similar legislation.

Cravins said the bill should be on Gov. Mike Foster's desk by next week for him to sign into law.

"It's a huge day for Louisiana," said David Utter, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which has pushed to close the prison.

The prison houses juveniles convicted in juvenile court who can be held up to their 21st birthday.

Under the conversion plan, the facility's educational, therapeutic and life skills units could still be used, Stalder said.

"We will transform that facility from one that deals with juveniles from age 17 to 20 to adults 17 to 20," Stalder said after the bill passed.

Cravins said the intent of the legislation is to keep all juveniles out of Tallulah, not simply to make a change on paper about who is housed there.

Given the near unanimous support for the measures in the House and Senate, Stalder should realize the intent of the legislation, Cravins said.

"I guess we're going to have to spell it out for Mr. Stalder in clear, concise terms," Cravins said.

"It really doesn't matter what you do with it, just so long as it's not for juvenile services at all."

The privately run facility at Tallulah, modeled after adult facilities, has a short, but marred history.

A riot broke out almost as soon as it opened; a state takeover occurred in 1999 and allegations of physical abuse and questions of the propriety of the contract between the state and builder/manager Trans-American Development Associates Inc. became public

The primary owners of that company, which will take ownership of the facility once the state pays off the bonds, are George Fischer, a chief of staff, campaign manager and transportation secretary under former Gov. Edwin Edwards; James Brown, son of former Tallulah state Sen. Charles Brown; and Verdi Adam, who had previous business dealings with Fischer.

A 2001 legislative auditor's report showed the owners made nearly $9 million in dividends and salaries since 1995.

That deal, along with the allegations of abuse at the facility, lent momentum to the push to reform the juvenile justice system, Utter said.

The measure passed Monday should spur a further look at the deal the state made with the prison's owners, Utter said.

"I'm hopeful we'll be able to settle that issue in the next year so we won't be stuck with that bad a deal," Utter said.

The measures that passed the House and Senate underwent some changes; originally, both bills called for an outright closure of the Tallulah prison.

Both the House and Senate altered that provision at the behest of lawmakers from northeast Louisiana.

Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said closing the facility would be devastating to northeast Louisiana because of the loss of 300 jobs.

"That's one of the most depressed areas in this whole nation," Thompson said. "Those jobs are needed."

The final measures also eliminated a risk review panel, which would have reviewed juvenile offenders and recommended them for either release or further incarceration.

The decision whether to release remains in the hands of judges, Landrieu said.

"The judges still have the last word," Landrieu said.

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