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FROM: Times Picayune

Juvenile justice bill wins House approval
By Laura Maggi

Compromise plan raises hopes for revamping troubled system
Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- With little fanfare or debate, the House on Monday unanimously approved legislation to begin an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system, eventually closing a juvenile prison and developing a plan to move oversight of young offenders to a new agency.

Sponsored by Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, House Bill 2018, along with House Concurrent Resolution 56, has been touted as a "compromise plan" hashed out by Gov. Foster's office, the Department of Corrections, juvenile justice advocates, judges and lawmakers.

"I think this is a pretty good step in the right direction," Landrieu said after the vote.

The proposal does not mean immediate change, but creates a framework to shift from incarcerating young offenders, about 75 percent of whom are put into juvenile prison after committing nonviolent crimes, to placing them in community-based programs more focused on rehabilitation.

Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, who has been pushing the issue along with Landrieu, said he plans to put the bill before the Senate this week, where he expects it to be quickly approved and on the governor's desk by early next week.

Cravins previously had expressed concerns about the length of time the legislation authorizes to remove juvenile offenders from the much-criticized Tallulah prison in northeast Louisiana. A bill he shepherded through the Senate earlier this session would have called for closing the prison to juveniles in a year. Landrieu's proposal gives the Department of Corrections from 18 to 23 months to move juveniles to other prisons or put them in nonsecure programs.

But Cravins said after the House vote Monday that he has changed his mind. "I want to lay this juvenile justice issue to rest. We've worked too long and too hard," he said, adding that the next governor and Legislature may be able to speed up the process.

Proponents have said the financial savings from removing juveniles from the Swanson Correction Center for Youth-Madison Parish, as Tallulah is formally called, will be used to expand the state's residential and day-treatment programs.

The bill also creates a committee to come up with a plan to move the office that oversees juvenile delinquents out of the Department of Corrections and into a new agency, which likely also would include components of other departments that deal with troubled youths. That plan would need to be approved by the next Legislature and governor to go into effect.

David Utter, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a group that has urged major changes in the state system, called the bill's passage a "historic day, it's a very important step forward."

Agreements hammered out

All of the concerns about various aspects of the legislation -- from problems raised by juvenile judges to concerns of lawmakers representing the Louisiana Delta area that is home to the Tallulah prison -- were worked out behind the scenes in the past two weeks.

Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, had objected to closing down Tallulah as a juvenile prison, because it would have meant the loss of many jobs in his impoverished district. Thompson amended the bill, without objections, to provide that the state will continue using the prison as a correctional facility, even if it is closed to juvenile delinquents, as long as the state is paying the debt service on the building.

Thompson also included language to provide that 40 percent of the savings from the prison's closure, up to $3 million, will be used to increase the number of nonsecure community programs in East Carroll, West Carroll, Madison, Richland and Tensas parishes. The balance of the savings, which have been estimated to be from $10 million to $20 million, would be used for community-based programs in the rest of the state.

Although the Department of Corrections plans to use the Tallulah facility -- probably to deal with young people convicted in adult courts -- an adult prison has much fewer guards and teachers than a juvenile facility, said Patrick Martin, Foster's assistant executive counsel who helped work out the language. Thompson's amendment would therefore keep some of the same kind of jobs in the area, he said.

Utter said the amendment would be stronger if it included Ouachita Parish, which includes Monroe, saying that there might not be enough young offenders from the largely rural parishes in the bill to warrant spending up to $3 million.

'Placement review' panel

Landrieu also amended the legislation, including a compromise worked out by the governor's office and juvenile judges to create a panel to periodically review whether juveniles should be removed from a prison setting.

The Department of Corrections has long argued that the agency needs a "parole board" for juveniles, saying too many judges do not respond to requests that a young offender be moved out of a secure facility. But juvenile judges balked at giving up the final decision-making authority about where delinquents should be.

As a compromise, the bill creates a "juvenile placement review" panel that will periodically consider whether juveniles are ready to leave secure facilities. While the corrections department would be able to recommend a juvenile be sent home or put in a residential program, a judge would still have veto power or the ability to modify the plan for the youth. The agency also would have to give a judge its assessment of the needs and progress of the juvenile in question, as well as provide a comprehensive plan of after-care services if the youth is released.



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