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FROM: The Associated Press

House passes Louisiana juvenile justice reform bill
By Adam Nossiter

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- A reform of Louisiana's juvenile justice system sailed unanimously through the House of Representatives Monday, smooth passage for changes that just months ago aroused opposition from powerful forces in state government, including the corrections department.

The reformers have pushed for a shift in the way the state treats young lawbreakers, advocating a move away from incarcerating them, to putting juveniles in less prison-like settings like community homes.

The bill passed Monday, a version of which was approved by the Senate two weeks ago, closes the scandal-plagued youth prison at Tallulah, and begins a process to move juvenile offenders away from the purview of the corrections department, and into a new state department dedicated wholly to youth problems.

Both changes aroused opposition in varying degrees from the state's prisons chief, Richard Stalder, the state's district attorneys and the governor's office.

But the bill passed Monday elicited no critical comments on the floor of the state House, and no votes in opposition, and passed 104-0.

The major point of contention was the closing of the youth prison at Tallulah, an institution beset by repeated brutality scandals. Prison officials, saying they were worried about where to put the juveniles housed there, were unenthusiastic about its closing.

But a compromise delays the shutdown for 18 months, and provides for the building's conversion into a prison for young adults. In addition, the creation of the youth department is pushed back at least until the next governor and legislature are seated.

The delays helped overcome skepticism, according to the measure's principal proponent, Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans. "We're all heading in the same direction, and it happens to be the right direction," Landrieu said on the floor of the House.

The measure's advocate in the Senate, Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, said he hoped it could be signed into law by Gov. Mike Foster as early as next week.

He attributed the recent building of consensus behind reform to overwhelming support from the public, as revealed most recently in a poll by the Council for a Better Louisiana.

The public support was a shift from previous years, when Cravins said backing was hard to come by.

"Things have certainly changed dramatically in the last few weeks," he said.

Landrieu said the bill "has the state of Louisiana recognizing the system needs to be fixed."

The governor's office, which had expressed skepticism over the changes, applauded them Monday.

"We've never been against the moving of juveniles out of Tallulah," said Patrick Martin, a lawyer for the governor. "We've said it needed to be done in an appropriate manner. We've said it can't simply be done without having something else in place," Martin said.

"If they supported us, thanks for the support," Cravins said.



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