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FROM: The Times-Picayune

A promising start
The Times-Picayune

Wednesday June 25, 2003

As the legislative session drew to a close this week, the Legislature passed a bill that should lead to a substantial overhaul of the juvenile justice system. The legislation is years overdue.

Louisiana's juvenile justice system has been a mess for a long time. The state spends too much money on expensive prisons and not enough on group homes, day treatment, intensive probation and other, cheaper alternatives, and as a result young people end up behind bars even for minor crimes. That approach might be justifiable if it were preventing delinquent juveniles from reoffending, but the evidence suggests that the opposite is true.

It's no wonder people who have worked in the system for years want to see far-reaching changes -- and want those changes to begin yesterday.

House Bill 2018, introduced by state Rep. Mitch Landrieu, doesn't move quite so quickly. But it is a promising start. It commits the state to closing the juvenile prison at Tallulah by mid-2005 at the latest. The bill also sets up a Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission to plan a new juvenile-services office, which will handle not just the punishment and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders but also a variety of other services for abused, neglected and otherwise troubled children.

Like most other long, complex bills that emerge from a legislative session, the juvenile justice reform legislation is far from perfect. It gives the state more time to close Tallulah than is absolutely necessary, and it does not stipulate that the new juvenile services agency be independent of the Department of Corrections or other existing departments.

Furthermore, there are some provisions in the bill that don't belong in it. In its final version, the bill stipulates that Tallulah should remain open as an adult prison and that up to $3 million of the savings from closing it as a juvenile facility should be budgeted for prison alternatives in several sparsely populated Northeast Louisiana parishes.

Nevertheless, the bill also creates an opportunity. Louisiana has the chance to build a more cost-effective and rehabilitative system. The goal isn't to turn every last juvenile offender loose on the streets, but rather to create a broader spectrum of progressively tougher punishments -- from probation to day programs to group homes to prisons -- so that offenders feel more pressure each time they violate the law.

It's important to note that the fate of all juvenile-justice reform plans, including whatever the implementation committee proposes, will depend substantially on who is elected governor this fall. Voters should pay attention to what each candidate has to say about the issue. For their part, candidates might want to note that the coalition supporting the reform bill eventually included youth advocates, juvenile judges, district attorneys, outside experts and business groups -- not to mention legislators from across the state and across the political spectrum.

That consensus will surely fray somewhat as the commission confronts thornier issues that the Legislature left unresolved this session. Nevertheless, it's significant that so many people have concluded that something is seriously wrong with Louisiana's juvenile justice system. Preserving the current momentum will be crucial in fixing it.

The Times-Picayune



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