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FROM: The Advocate

Juvenile system overhaul approved
The Advocate
By Laura Maggi

Tallulah prisoners would be transferred

Tuesday May 13, 2003

BATON ROUGE -- Legislation to overhaul Louisiana's juvenile justice system was approved by a Senate panel Monday after lawmakers amended the bill to hand off the chore of implementing and paying for the sweeping changes to next year's Legislature and a new governor.

The amendments were approved unanimously and agreed to by Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, sponsor of the proposal that recommends dealing with juvenile offenders in community-based programs instead of locking them up in the state's four juvenile prisons.

"The intent is not to undermine the process of change but to underscore that it is a process," said Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, adding that lawmakers need "a well-conceived transition plan to take it to the next level."

The panel approved not only Senate Bill 957, which aims to create a framework for changing the juvenile justice system, but also SB 963, which would transfer all juvenile offenders out of the prison in Tallulah by next summer. Cravins and other proponents say the money spent on that facility could be used to expand the state's residential and day-treatment programs.

The heart of Cravins' overarching bill is aimed at drafting a plan to move the responsibility for young lawbreakers from the Department of Corrections, which runs the adult prisons, to a new agency called the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The legislation also calls for the Children's Cabinet, the executive branch agency heads and other officials who deal with children's policy issues, to draft proposals about how to deal with youths who enter the juvenile system.

Those two proposals remain in the legislation, although any actual plans will have to be approved by the next governor and Legislature. But in an effort to make sure that the legislation will not cost the state any money in the fiscal year that begins July 1 -- especially with a tight state budget -- several other provisions were altered or stripped from the measure. For example, the committee decided the requirement that the Department of Social Services license juvenile facilities would not go into effect until the 2004-2005 fiscal year.

The committee also took out a section that would have repealed so-called "juvenile life," which requires that youths who commit violent felonies be kept at a juvenile prison until they are 21 without any chance for parole.

Reservations expressed

David Utter, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which has been pushing for the legislation, said the decision not to repeal mandatory minimums for juveniles was "disappointing" but part of the legislative process.

Lawmakers need to focus on the overarching plans, he said, putting into motion the development of the proposal to create the new agency and approving the proposal to close the Tallulah prison in northeast Louisiana.

"It's the big picture that absolutely needs to happen," Utter said after the meeting. "If we can fix this system, then those kids (convicted of violent felonies), we hope, will be fixed as well . . . if you can pull the kids out of the Department of Corrections and into a better environment and safer environment."

The trimming of the juvenile bill will likely mute some of the criticism of the legislation as it heads to the Senate floor. So far, the proposal has drawn opposition from the state's sheriffs and district attorneys, with both groups expressing reservations about the main concept of shifting responsibility for juvenile offenders away from the Department of Corrections.

For corrections officials, the focus of their critique has been on Cravins' proposal to remove all juveniles at the Tallulah prison by June 30, 2004, sending them to another secure facility or to residential programs.

With more than a year to work with, the corrections department should be able to come up with a plan to move around youths to accommodate having one less facility to hold offenders, Cravins said. All this should be done without incurring any additional costs, he said, while the operating money used to run the prison could be used to develop community-based programs.

Cost concerns

After the meeting, Trey Boudreaux, undersecretary of the corrections department, said the 12-month timeline to remove juveniles from Tallulah might not give the agency enough time or resources, saying the agency is constrained by expected increases in the costs of contracting with nonprofit groups that run residential programs and future judicial assignments of young offenders to secure facilities.

The state currently spends $14.8 million on the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish unit, the formal name for the Tallulah prison. About $3.4 million must be spent on maintaining the debt service on the prison, which leaves $11.4 million that could be spent on other programs, according to the department's analysis.

The agency has identified 163 youths who currently could be served by community programs, including 75 on waiting lists, which would cost $4.5 million. To transfer the majority of the 207 current residents of Tallulah into nonsecure programs or other prisons would cost about $4.2 million.

Although there appears to be enough money from the prison operating expenses to cover those costs, Boudreaux said to ensure that a transition works well, lawmakers should appropriate some money for next year's budget to create more community programs before the prison is closed.

Cravins said he was not opposed to seeking money for residential or day-treatment programs for next year's spending plan, but he said resources might be available from other parts of the Department of Corrections' proposed budget.

The Advocate



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