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FROM: Times Picayune

Juvenile 'parole board' proposed in House bill
By Laura Maggi

Panel would advise on release for rehab

Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- In their effort to revamp the state's juvenile justice system, juvenile judges and Gov. Foster's office are trying to come to an agreement on a plan to give the Department of Corrections greater flexibility to release young offenders from the state's secure facilities.

About two weeks ago the House Judiciary Committee passed what was touted as a "compromise plan" to rework how juveniles are treated when they commit crimes, providing the framework for a system more focused on rehabilitation in community-based programs than incarceration in the state's four juvenile prisons. The plan also calls for closing one of those juvenile prisons, which would free operating money to be spent on creating more residential and day-treatment programs for troubled youths.

But House Bill 2018, by Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, has not yet been considered on the House floor, as the judges and administration officials have tried to work out the judges' concerns about a "risk review panel" that would allow corrections officials to directly release juveniles from secure institutions.

Those negotiations are almost completed and the bill could be considered on the floor as soon as today, Landrieu said Wednesday.

'Juvenile placement panel'

Instead of the proposal originally included in the bill, the compromise being devised would create what proponents are calling a "juvenile placement panel" of experts to evaluate whether young offenders are ready to be released. If a juvenile is ready, the panel would send the recommendation to the presiding judge, along with various assessments of the youth and a plan for treatment outside of the prison, said Patrick Martin, Foster's assistant executive counsel.

A judge would have about three weeks to decide whether to accept or reject the panel's recommendation or conduct a hearing on the matter. If the judge does not act by the end of 14 working days, the department could on its own release the youth or transfer the offender to a nonsecure facility.

Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court Judge Nancy Konrad said the judges have agreed to the proposed procedure, which would keep the veto power in judges' hands.

"What the judges feel is (that) it is their duty as elected officials to be the ultimate decision-maker about the release of children," she said.

But Konrad said judges still want assurances that if youths are going to be released from prisons, there would be an "intensive aftercare" program set up. "We need to ensure the bill provides for all that," she said.

Although the Department of Corrections has put in a budget request to add $5 million to its $24 million budget for community programs for the budget year beginning July 1, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc, D-Lafayette, said the agency will receive far less than that.

"I'm trying to get them some money to get started," LeBlanc said. "But we don't have $5 million for that."

Bill seeks Tallulah closing

The idea of a panel similar to a parole board for juveniles within the Department of Corrections is a concept agency officials have been pushing for years, saying that in many cases judges do not respond to their recommendations that a youth is ready to leave the juvenile prisons.

As Landrieu's proposal calls for closing the Tallulah prison in northeast Louisiana to juveniles after about 18 months, the department needs a panel to ensure that enough juveniles are moving out of the other facilities to make room for those now at Tallulah, Martin said.

While many different groups, from the governor's office to juvenile advocacy organizations, agreed to the compromise plan worked out two weeks ago, some questions remain about how it will be received in the Senate. Earlier in the legislative session, the Senate passed its own proposals, including a measure to close the oft-criticized Tallulah prison in only a year.

"I'm still not happy with the 18 months (time frame)," said Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, sponsor of the Senate legislation, who has noted in the past that some experts have said the 225 juveniles at Tallulah can be moved out more quickly. But Cravins said he might be willing to compromise when the proposal comes to the Senate.

Corrections Department officials have held firm that the closure date must be longer than the year approved by the Senate, saying they will need lockdown cells like those at Tallulah to hold young offenders who are considered violent.

The Corrections Department is building a 72-cell wing at the Jetson Correctional Institute in Baton Rouge for holding what the agency determines to be violent youthful offenders. But because of holdups at the federal level -- most of the money for the facility comes from a federal grant -- the individual cells will not be completed next winter or spring as expected, said Trey Boudreaux, corrections undersecretary.



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