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FROM: Times-Picayune

The prison specialist

Tuesday March 11, 2003

Richard Stalder is in the prison business.

As secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections for 11 years, Mr. Stalder is primarily responsible for keeping adults behind bars. And although the secretary has called for alternatives to jail for juveniles, the department abandoned a 1991 plan that would have reduced crowding in youth prisons by expanding community treatment programs. Instead, it added hundreds of new juvenile prison beds.

To understand the department's priorities, just follow the money: A dozen years ago, Louisiana spent $3 million more on probation, residential and day treatment programs than on juvenile jails. Now it spends at least $27 million more on jails than on services.

Lawmakers and citizens ought to keep that in mind as the debate over juvenile justice -- and the Tallulah youth prison in particular -- heats up during this spring's legislative session.

The notorious prison is on the table because closing it would get rid of unnecessary prison beds and generate savings that can be put to better use.

By some estimates, shuttering Tallulah would save the state $20 million a year -- far more than eliminating the same number of beds throughout the juvenile system, as the Department of Corrections has proposed. The money will come in handy; reformers recognize that it's the most realistic source for new treatment services for troubled youths.

Sadly, getting rid of the Tallulah prison has proved trickier than juvenile-justice reformers and fiscal conservatives had hoped. Three friends of former Gov. Edwin Edwards own it, even though taxpayers are footing the construction bill. Despite contract terms that would let the state stop payment, bond rating agencies on Wall Street have told state officials that they plan to hold Louisiana responsible for the debt anyway.

Reformers say that even if the state shifts 300-odd youths from prison to residential treatment, the most restrictive and expensive alternative to jail, there would still be enough money left over to make the annual payment. But Gov. Foster's administration is loath to make those payments without getting the deed for the prison. Last month the administration said it had been negotiating with the Edwards cronies to buy the prison outright.

Whether the purchase would be a bargain for taxpayers -- or just another rip-off -- will depend on the terms of the deal and how the state plans to use the building.

What's worrisome is that Corrections has already proposed a new use for Tallulah: it could be a vocational center for older juveniles or a prison for juveniles convicted in adult court. Both ideas hold some appeal. But in either case, taxpayers would keep pouring money into a grim prison in the middle of nowhere, instead of spending it on rehabilitative services closer to where young offenders live.

Unfortunately, the front-line workers in Louisiana's juvenile justice system are prison guards whose training emphasizes physical control. Many of them abuse their charges and play youths against each other, according to judges, lawyers, youth advocates and parents.

Helping young offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions and get their lives on track is a complex and delicate job. The state's prison department is ill-equipped for it.

For that and other reasons, most members of the Juvenile Justice Commission want to give responsibility for juvenile justice to a new agency that focuses more on treatment. That's the proper course.

Veterans of Louisiana's juvenile corrections system say it's in better shape now than it once was. New beds have alleviated the crowding that led to federal court supervision in the 1980s. Juvenile inmates are no longer sleeping in closets and on floors.

But by committing so much money and energy to incarceration over the past decade, the department has squandered its chance to create a less expensive and more effective system. And unfortunately, Mr. Stalder's department doesn't have any more tricks up its sleeve.



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