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FROM: The Times-Picayune

Clearing the air

Sunday May 11, 2003

Louisiana's juvenile justice system is based on this presumption: If you lock up minor offenders in violent prisons, alongside those who have committed far more serious offenses, you will magically turn them into model citizens.

However outlandish this idea is, it's the reason why Louisiana incarcerates so many young people.

And it's not the only misguided notion shaping the debate over the future of juvenile justice in our state.

Certain facts about the system are indisputable: Of about 1,300 youths in juvenile prison, the vast majority have been found guilty of nonviolent crimes, and most have no prior offenses on their records. Sentences for these young people often bear little relation to the severity of their crimes. Incarceration costs an estimated $44,000 to $68,000 a year -- far more than group homes, day treatment and other programs that provide alternatives to prison. Recidivism is a bigger problem in Louisiana than in places that make better use of these alternatives. And time and again, our state has been hauled into court over conditions in its juvenile prisons.

The Legislature's Juvenile Justice Committee has devised a way to address all these problems.

The first step is to shutter one of Louisiana's four large juvenile prisons -- the long-troubled, privately owned one in Tallulah being the obvious candidate -- and use the savings to build up alternatives to jail. The second step is to take responsibility for troubled juveniles away from the Department of Corrections and give it to a new agency, which would balance punishment with rehabilitation.

Of course, talk of closing a prison invariably gives rise to fears that violent criminals will be allowed to wander the streets. Louisiana's main district attorneys' group has expressed reservations about taking responsibility for youth offenders away from the Department of Corrections, which most DAs view as a reliable partner against crime. Meanwhile, Foster administration Executive Counsel Bernie Boudreaux, whose son is a top administrator at Corrections, has described the kind of changes reformers are seeking as a doomed social experiment.

These concerns don't stand up under scrutiny.

In truth, the legislators and judges who have staked their reputations on improving the juvenile justice system do recognize the importance of protecting innocent citizens from criminals. Indeed, one key reason to change the present system is to bring recidivism down.

To be sure, some of the inmates in juvenile prisons have committed murder, rape and other serious violent crimes. But these offenders are a minority of juvenile inmates, and they are not the ones who would be released to less secure settings if reform efforts succeed. Inmates who cannot be housed safely elsewhere would remain in prison.

It's significant that the model that reformers cite most frequently is Missouri, which maintains a small number of prison beds and a much larger network of group homes and other programs. This system isn't a nebulous scheme dreamed up by delusional do-gooders; it's the work of people with long experience in punishing and rehabilitating juveniles. It evolved and prospered under the supervision of governors from both parties -- including Republican John Ashcroft, who is not widely considered a softy.

So far, Louisiana's governor hasn't done much to push the reform effort along. In his radio address Thursday, Gov. Foster asserted that Louisiana's juvenile justice system needs fundamental changes. But he did not spell out what those changes might be, and he did suggest that the reform bills now in the Legislature are calling for a faster transformation than is practical.

He's right that a new, improved juvenile justice system can't be willed into existence in an hour or a day. But closing Tallulah shouldn't take years. Progress will be exactly as swift, steady and orderly as the governor and the administration want it to be.

Legislators, and members of the Juvenile Justice Commission in particular, have done a fine job of proposing reforms. But the fate of those efforts will come down to whether Gov. Foster takes a hard, honest look at our state's juvenile justice system -- and then acts accordingly.



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