return to press room

FROM: Times Picayune

Panel OKs juvenile justice bill: Senate set to debate overhaul proposal
By Laura Maggi

Thursday April 24, 2003

Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- Legislation that would provide the framework for an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system was approved unanimously Wednesday as a Senate panel endorsed the principle that most young offenders should be rehabilitated in community-based programs instead of locked up in prisons.

The proposal heads to the full Senate for debate. Similar House legislation has not yet come up in committee as Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, tries to work out some of the issues with district attorneys and other opponents.

The bill, however, does not set up the community-based rehabilitation programs it calls for or identify a money source to pay for them, major hurdles that proponents will tackle with other legislation.

Advocates and some lawmakers have suggested closing the oft-criticized juvenile prison in Tallulah in northeast Louisiana as a way to get the money necessary to develop residential or day-treatment programs to work with troubled youths.

That contentious issue, opposed by the state Department of Corrections and many of the state's district attorneys, will be taken up separately, said Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, chairman of the Senate Judiciary B Committee, which deals with corrections matters.

Senate Bill 957, the product of two years of study and planning, largely deals with the bureaucracies that work with youths who have committed crimes, including a proposal to strip the Department of Corrections of its authority over delinquent youths.

That responsibility ultimately would be shifted to another agency that would administer several programs that deal with young people, such as foster care. The legislation, however, does not create the new Department of Children, Youth and Families, but establishes a committee to draw up a plan to be considered during next spring's legislative session.

"This bill is a blueprint for reform, establishing the structure necessary to implement reform and pool the state's resources in the most effective manner," Cravins said. "The bill also recognizes the need for new leadership and new thinking."

An alternative to jail

Cravins and other proponents of the legislation say the Department of Corrections does not have the proper mind-set to deal with juvenile delinquents and is focused primarily on incarcerating young offenders in one of the state's four juvenile prisons.

Of the 1,546 inmates in the state's juveniles prisons in 2001, 77 percent were nonviolent offenders. Instead of locking up those juveniles, lawmakers, judges and others have advocated creating a network of community-based programs, including residential group homes and day-treatment rehabilitation programs.

Pete Adams of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association supports the idea of such programs but objects to shifting the supervision from the Corrections Department, saying the agency has never been given the resources to properly do that job.

"We've never given the Department of Corrections a mission to do anything like this," Adams said. "You tell me every kid can be saved, and yet in the same breath you tell me we cannot have a new mission for the Department of Corrections to do this?"

Along with proposing a new agency to take charge of delinquents, the legislation would rework the laws that require a minor convicted in juvenile court of a serious violent crime, such as murder, aggravated rape or armed robbery, to be put in a secure facility until the age of 21. Instead, the proposal, opposed by the district attorneys' association, would make those delinquents eligible for parole and let corrections place them in any juvenile facility deemed appropriate.

In order to craft the policies, Cravins' bill would create a state board and several regional boards to outline what changes are needed, a move decried by Adams as the layering of more bureaucracies. But David Utter, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said the regional boards are needed to ensure the state is focused on problems in local areas.

Eligible for parole

The committee also considered a proposal, favored by the Department of Corrections, that would let the agency reduce its prison population by creating a parole board to determine which offenders are ready to be released.

Currently, if the agency thinks a delinquent is ready to be released, officials send a letter to the juvenile's judge, Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder said. In many cases, the agency never hears back, he said.

The legislation would let the panel release offenders directly, after they have been evaluated to determine what kind of risk they pose to society. The panel also could transfer the offender to a "nonsecure program" without asking for judicial permission.

The proposal, which passed 3-2, provoked some skepticism from committee members.

"Is the thinking that this will help to take some of the heat off juvenile judges who have to make the decisions to accomplish the release?" asked Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge.

"That says directly which I was not willing to say directly," responded Bernie Boudreaux, Gov. Foster's executive counsel, who helped craft the legislation. In some rural areas, where there are only a couple of judges, Boudreaux said, they might be reluctant to grant a release because they would be scrutinized if a released offender subsequently committed a serious crime.

After the meeting, Utter also was critical of the bill, saying the Corrections Department already can release an offender without a judge's permission or transfer juveniles to nonsecure facilities. A parole board would add unnecessary bureaucracy to the process, he said.

But Patrick Martin, another of Foster's attorneys, said department officials do not believe current law gives them the authority to release or transfer juveniles.



return to press room