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FROM: The Advocate

Senate panel backs call to close juvenile prison
The Advocate

Capitol news bureau

A bill to close a juvenile prison in Tallulah cleared a Senate committee Monday despite questions on whether the shutdown is cost-efficient.

The prison is the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit. The measure requires it to close by June 30, 2004.

Senate Bill 963 was approved by the Senate Finance Committee 5-3. It next faces action in the full Senate, possibly today.

The prison has been plagued by problems and controversy since it opened in 1994 -- a riot, allegations of physical abuse and questions about the contract between the state and operators of the facility. It houses 225 juvenile offenders.

Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville and sponsor of the bill, said the Tallulah prison "represents everything that is wrong with juvenile justice in Louisiana."

"Whoever dreamed up Tallulah ought to be in the penitentiary," Cravins quipped later.

Critics of the bill said they are bothered that, even when the prison is closed, the state will have to pay $3.4 million per year to make lease payments on the structure.

Sen. Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, asked what the state accomplishes if it keeps the prison, moves its occupants elsewhere and fails to save money. Ellington also asked if state corrections officials could revamp the prison.

Cravins said closing the structure is part of a statewide plan to emphasize community-based sites.

He said Missouri has transformed its juvenile program, once plagued by many of the same problems as prisons in Louisiana.

Now Missouri's system costs taxpayers there about $65 million a year, with about 10 percent of released offenders later returning to jail. Louisiana's juvenile justice system costs taxpayers about $135 million, and about 60 percent of offenders released return later, he said.

Other backers of the bill downplayed the $3.4 million costs. They said the state will find a use for the prison after it is closed.

The panel also approved a separate bill designed to pave the way for sweeping changes in juvenile operations. Cravins said no state money will be spent until lawmakers decide on details of the plan. That measure, which next faces action in the full Senate, is Senate Bill 957.

The Advocate



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