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FROM: Times-Picayune

The whole package


Sunday April 27, 2003

Efforts to reform Louisiana's failed juvenile justice system advanced a step this past week, when the state Senate's Judiciary B Committee endorsed the idea of rehabilitating juvenile offenders close to home instead of locking them up in prison.

Senate Bill 957 would create statewide and regional juvenile justice planning boards, begin preparations for a new Department of Children, Youth and Families and set up a special fund to pay for reforms.

Passing the bill, or its counterpart in the House of Representatives, is crucial. But it's part of a package, and it won't be sufficient on its own to fix the juvenile justice system.

Some of the money that Louisiana now spends on juvenile prisons has to be redirected to day treatment and other community rehabilitation programs. And that won't happen unless the Legislature explicitly commits to closing down one of Louisiana's four juvenile prisons.

Our state has about 1,300 inmates in juvenile prison and spends about $89 million a year to keep them there. Never mind that most, though not all, inmates are nonviolent offenders, and a substantial number of them could be housed safely in cheaper settings. And never mind that recidivism rates are significantly higher than in states that take a more rehabilitative approach.

The system is so troubled, in fact, that people who want to preserve the status quo aren't likely to say so openly. Legislators should therefore be wary of efforts to sideline reform in subtler ways -- through the advocacy of only modest changes, through demands for more study, through assertions that the current arrangements merely need more money and more time to work.

A number of lawmakers and experts have concluded, for example, that within a year or so Tallulah, the state's most notorious juvenile prison, could safely be closed down. But the state Department of Corrections insists that it would need 30 months to shift around offenders.

Corrections officials do support a bill that would set up a special risk-review board to decide which juvenile offenders should be released from prison. The panel could take some pressure off of judges who don't want to be seen as soft on juvenile criminals.

But depending on its membership, it could also obstruct efforts to move minor offenders out of juvenile prisons and into community settings. It's worth noting that the Legislature set up a risk-review process for low-level adult offenders two years ago, and so far the number of releases has been minuscule.

The Department of Corrections isn't the only interest group pushing for reform at a snail's pace. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association has expressed reservations about creating a Department of Children, Youth and Families and shifting responsibility for juvenile justice away from Corrections. The existing department hasn't yet been given the resources to expand community rehabilitation programs, the DA group says.

That simply isn't true. Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder abandoned a 1991 plan to reduce crowding in juvenile prisons by adding more community rehabilitation programs. Instead, the state added hundreds of prison beds, and if the department had any inclination to reverse course and expand community programs for troubled teens, it surely would have done so by now.

It's in the nature of bureaucracies, and not just the ones in Louisiana, to find a way to go on doing what they've always done -- no matter how many scathing reviews they get, no matter how many times they end up in court, no matter how many reform plans come and go. But Louisiana's juvenile justice system must not go on as is, and lawmakers should support the whole package of reform



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