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FROM: Associated Press

Bills aim to reform juvenile justice, close Tallulah prison

5/12/03 6:59 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- The overhauling of Louisiana's youth justice system, one of the major projects in this year's legislative session, continued its slow advance Monday, as two bills were passed by a Senate committee for the second time.

Louisiana imprisons a higher percentage of its youth than any other state but South Dakota, and it does so in scandal-ridden prisons rife with tales of brutality and inmate mistreatment.

None has had a worse reputation than the youth prison at Tallulah, and reformers have been calling for its closing as a youth prison for several years. Monday, a bill that does exactly that passed the Senate Finance Committee, six days after advancing through a committee that handles matters of crime and justice.

The Tallulah-closing bill appears to have considerable support and is expected to pass in the Senate. Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Lafayette, the bill's sponsor, expressed surprise on the Senate floor about costs suddenly tacked on last week that delayed its movement to the full Senate.

However, the bill to close Tallulah has also drawn opponents, as well as powerful entities that are less than enthusiastic -- like the state Department of Corrections.

The state senator in whose district Tallulah is located, C.D. Jones, has spoken often against its closing, protesting about jobs that might be lost, and Monday he again voted against the closing bill. The bill's sponsors have been keen to emphasize that the building itself could be used for other types of criminals, if the Department of Corrections wants to do so.

The Legislative Fiscal Office estimated it would cost $8.6 million to put Tallulah's youth in alternative settings -- a figure disputed by a philanthropic foundation that aided the reformers, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which estimates that at most, the cost would be $6.2.

And even that figure is likely to be high, the foundation reckons, as many youth currently in the juvenile justice system could be released, as their crimes were not violent.

While some complained about the bond debt on Tallulah that still will have to be paid, and others -- notably Jones -- worried about lost jobs, Cravins, with some exasperation, insisted that shutting it down as a juvenile prison was an overriding priority.

"It ought to be closed on general principles. Think of the lives that have been wasted," Cravins said.

The Finance Committee also approved a larger juvenile justice reform bill, previously approved in one of the senate's judiciary committees, that seeks to transfer jurisdiction of offending youth from the Department of Corrections to a new department of Children, Youth and Families.

That bill charges state officials to come up with a plan to create such a department, and on Monday the Finance Committee gave it the nod after it was amended to ensure that it costs the state nothing this year.

The bills now go to the full Senate for approval. On Thursday, Senate President John Hainkel spoke approvingly of the Tallulah-closing bill.

The scandal of Tallulah has reverberated in other legislative areas in this year's session. Monday afternoon, the Senate passed a bill that would subject quiet deals like the one which created Tallulah in 1994, to approval by the Legislature.



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