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FROM: Times Picayune

Weighing down a good idea

Louisiana's juvenile justice system does a far better job of wasting tax dollars than it does of rehabilitating young offenders. To judge from the unanimous approval of a major reform package Monday, members of the state House of Representatives understand the scope of the problem. Aside from a few misguided provisions, the legislation marks a crucial step toward addressing that problem.

House Concurrent Resolution 56, sponsored by state Rep. Mitch Landrieu, would express the Legislature's desire to build a new system that strikes a better balance between punishment and rehabilitation. House Bill 2018, also by Rep. Landrieu, would require the closure of the Tallulah prison as a youth facility before June 2005, would begin the planning of a single new entity for most youth services and would hasten the development of group homes, treatment programs and alternatives to incarceration.

So far, so good. But an amendment inserted by Rep. Francis Thompson stipulates that Louisiana will keep using Tallulah as some kind of correctional facility -- presumably one for offenders convicted in the adult system -- as long as the state keeps paying debt service on the prison.

Furthermore, the amendment by Rep. Thompson, who has some constituents who work at the prison, also requires the state to set aside 40 percent of the savings from closing Tallulah, up to a maximum of $3 million, for alternatives to incarceration in five rural parishes in Northeast Louisiana.

It's unfortunate that the legislation binds the state with either of these provisions. That it contains both is deeply disturbing. While Tallulah's economic plight is obvious to anyone who so much as drives through the town, a juvenile justice system isn't a jobs program. And it shouldn't be treated as one.

It's true that some juvenile offenders come from rural parishes, not from the state's largest metropolitan areas. It's also true that mental-health services, drug treatment and other social services that can keep children out of trouble are in short supply statewide, and they are particularly hard to come by in rural areas.

But the five parishes in question -- East Carroll, West Carroll, Madison, Richland and Tensas -- combined are home to 62,000 people. That's just 1.4 percent of Louisiana's population. So when lawmakers from those parishes gain control of so much of the savings from closing Tallulah, there's far less available for youths in the parishes where 98.6 percent of the state's population actually lives.

And if legislators are going to engage in geographic pork-barreling, they should make sure the money is spread over a wide enough area that it doesn't go to waste. David Utter, head of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, suggests that the parishes targeted for extra money should at least include nearby Ouachita Parish, which has a population of 147,000.

The House reform package is a compromise among judges, district attorneys and other crucial groups. Like most compromises, it isn't perfect -- even without Rep. Thompson's amendment. The legislation does not specifically call for moving juvenile justice outside the supervision of the Department of Corrections, whose expertise lies in building and running prisons. And it postpones much of the hard work of reorganizing the state's befuddled juvenile justice system until next year and the next governor.

The legislation would prepare the ground, though, for a more cost-effective juvenile justice system. Such a system may be society's last chance to help turn troubled young people into peaceful, working, taxpaying citizens. Parochial concerns must not distract lawmakers from that mission.



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