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FROM: Associated Press

Juvenile justice reforms pass easily in House panel, full Senate

5/14/03 7:58 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Juvenile justice reform in Louisiana got a significant boost Wednesday as a nearly unanimous Senate passed bills that would shut down a notorious youth prison and start up a process for sweeping changes in the state's relations with youthful lawbreakers.

The twin goals sought by reformers Wednesday evoked almost no opposition in the Senate vote, which came almost two years after studies were begun aimed at transforming a system widely thought to have failed.

Both bills still must get through the House, where similar legislation is being guided by Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans. Landrieu's version of the legislation was approved Wednesday night by the House Judiciary Committee without opposition.

The bills' smooth passage in the full Senate and in the House committee is testimony to the impact of a constant drumbeat of bad news coming from Louisiana's youth prisons, particularly Tallulah, as well as harsh statistics regarding the way the state doles out justice to its young people.

Senators barely looked up from their desks, or halted private business. Senate President John Hainkel even admonished the senators to pay attention at one point.

Louisiana imprisons a higher percentage of its youth than almost any other state. And in contrast to some other states, where delinquents are frequently placed in group homes, Louisiana puts them in facilities closely modeled after adult prisons.

That aspect of the system has been a particular target for reformers, who argue that locking up teenagers in barbed-wire settings is inappropriate. "Louisiana uses it prisons to take a bad kid and make him a worse criminal," said Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, one of the Senate's principal instigators of change.

The breadth of support for the reform was evident Wednesday, with even an ex-prosecutor, Sen. Arthur Lentini, R-Kenner, chiming in: "As a former prosecutor it was just my job to put people in jail. I didn't worry about it that much. But with the juvenile justice system it's a little different," Lentini said.

"If you take a juvenile like that and lock them up, they're not going to come out a productive citizen. I was a little skeptical but this is a needed and good piece of legislation," Lentini said.

One of the bills passed by the Senate Wednesday aims at a wholesale move away from the incarceration model decried by the juvenile justice reformers.

The goal is to move jurisdiction for offending youth out of the state's corrections department, one of the largest prison departments in the nation, and into an entirely new state department that would focus solely on children, youth and families.

The bill sets up a panel of state officials charged with planning the new department. That plan is to be presented to the Legislature. In addition, it directs officials to come up with a "system for funding community-based services."

"It basically sets the framework for reforming the juvenile justice system in Louisiana," Cravins said. "Most of you are much aware of the fact that Louisiana needs to reform its system."

Landrieu's bill, approved late Wednesday by the House panel, combines aspects of the two bills approved by the Senate: the eventual shutdown of Tallulah and the formation of a commission to set up the new department, which would pull together entities now spread among several state departments including Corrections, Education and Social Services.

Landrieu acknowledged that details remain to be worked out with representatives of the criminal justice system. Those include district attorneys and juvenile court judges who may lose some of their authority to "risk review panels" that would be created to determine whether some juveniles should be released.

Even Richard Stalder, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, who has been reluctant to agree to the closing of Tallulah and the removal of juveniles from his department, said Wednesday night that he supported Landrieu's bill.

In the Senate, nobody objected to the general reform, for which the vote was 38-0.

There was only one Senate dissenter on the separate Tallulah bill, which calls for moving all youth out of the prison -- nationally known for its history of violence, brutality by guards and poor conditions -- by June 30, 2004.

As he has in the past, Sen. C.D. Jones, D-Monroe, objected because of some 300 jobs that might be lost at the prison, even though it could be converted into an adult facility or used for some other purpose.

His position seemed to command little support, however. Sen. Cravins sternly told Jones:

"We talk about jobs. I don't think we can put jobs above the lives of juveniles in this state. I'm not for extending this thing any further. We need to close it."



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