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FROM: The Associated Press

Juvenile justice reform is now law, but will it mean change?
The Associated Press

6/24/03 6:52 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- The reformer-politicians said hosannas to themselves, their colleagues, and even their one-time foes as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003 crawled through the Legislature, finally emerging in daylight on the session's last day, Monday.

It was the greatest reform, the best, the most sweeping. Never mind that these superlatives were often delivered to fellow legislators who were patently not listening. A corrupted warren -- the state's juvenile justice system -- that had brought national disgrace on Louisiana would now be transformed.

But changing the way the state treats its youthful lawbreakers remains more a hope than a reality, for the foreseeable future.

The sprawling 59-page reform bill that finally passed Monday is full of brave words about the need to "aggressively create a better structure and culture for administering juvenile justice," the need for "better communication, coordination, and collaboration," and so on. High-flow rhetoric aside, it does represent something of a departure.

For years, governor and Legislature -- a few lonely voices aside -- resolutely ignored the problem. A thick bill crammed with good intentions proves that's no longer the case. Even Gov. Mike Foster, initially less than enthusiastic, wished the reformers Godspeed, pronouncing the new law "a plus" Monday evening as the lawmakers went home.

Yet the hopes of reformers are months, if not years, from being implemented. Their central goal was to shift errant youth away from the purview of the state corrections department, and under that of a brand-new state department, one that has nothing to do with prisons. Locking kids up doesn't work: time for something new.

But under the reform bill, the goal is pretty much where it was before: the object of study.

True, the body doing the studying has a fancy title: the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission. But the bill asks it to do no more than come up with a "plan" for the new department -- a plan that still must be approved by governor and Legislature, still must be funded, still must be implemented.

And whether or not the new governor and Legislature taking office in January will care about juvenile justice is, of course, unknowable.

Forgive some juvenile justice advocates if they sound a little weary. "It seems to me it does a whole lot more studying," said Kathleen Richey, past president of the Louisiana Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges.

"I don't see anything changing immediately out of that bill," said Richey, a judge who was a member of the previous study commission's advisory board. As a member of that commission's planning team, Cecile Guin of the LSU School of Social Work, put it: "The timing is set up with the hope that the next governor will do something."

That might happen, and it might not. "If the someone else in the governor's office has a different agenda, then we wouldn't see anything coming out of this anyway," said Richey.

The caution of the reform bill is the fruit of political compromise, and of the broad array of agendas and interest groups that created it. One of the biggest compromises is the lengthy delay in the closing of the state's worst juvenile prison, Tallulah. For years this was the reformers' rallying cry.

But it has been put off, for at least a year. Throughout the legislative session politicians from the Tallulah area, worried about the loss of jobs, sought to delay the prison's closure.

And corrections department officials, equally unenthusiastic, insisted that spots for the worst of Tallulah's denizens weren't immediately available elsewhere.

The corrections department also saw little need for the whole-cloth creation of a cross-town rival, one that would move lawbreaking youth -- and the prison staff in charge of them -- out of its jurisdictions. This view was shared by the state's district attorneys and the governor's office.

So a new department wasn't created, only plans for one. "When you have many people involved, you've got some who want to maintain the status quo," said Marty Fortner, of Southern University at New Orleans, on the last study commission's research team. "When you look at the political system, this is the best you can hope for."

Yet the very broadness of the group that hatched the reform scheme perhaps augurs well for its afterlife. So many entities having a stake in the outcome may mean greater chance it won't be a negative one.

"I think the Juvenile Justice Commission did its homework by bringing together prosecutors, judges, advocates, by bringing in everybody, and making sure everybody is on board," said Joseph Liu of Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit group that worked on the reform.

Still, all the rhetoric in the bill could end up being no more meaningful than the torrent of verbiage that flows through every legislative session. "We really do have important issues in juvenile justice that are being smothered by a bunch of words," said Richey. "We don't have time. We could lose a lot of kids."

The Associated Press



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