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FROM: Times-Picayune

A costly failure

Sunday March 09, 2003

Terrance never belonged in prison, but Louisiana taxpayers paid a fortune to put him there anyway.

The New Orleans teenager kept getting into trouble at school, though not with the law. After he used up all the counseling that his mother's health insurer would pay for, she figured that the state might lend her a hand.

That was a mistake. When Terrance was about 16, the state sent him first to a New Orleans day program that stressed education and counseling and later to a group home in North Louisiana. He got into a fight with another resident, was charged with battery and convicted. Then Terrance was assigned to boot camp at the Tallulah youth prison. He kept getting disciplinary tickets for mouthing off and ended up in the prison's general population.

In all, he spent about a year in jail for a fight and for disobeying authority at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to taxpayers. If those were proper grounds for imprisonment, then many other teenagers in Louisiana would be behind bars.

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For financial reasons alone, our state ought to be careful about whom it puts in prison. Juvenile incarceration costs $44,000 to $68,000 per offender per year, depending on whose estimate you use. That's considerably more than a year at an Ivy League college, more than the starting annual salary for a teacher and more than the average Louisiana family makes in a year.

And that money isn't doing much good. Juvenile offenders in Louisiana are more likely than their counterparts in other states to commit further crimes after finishing their sentences.

The contrast is stark. About 35 percent of offenders released from jail or other Department of Corrections programs in 1999 had committed another crime by October 2002. That recidivism rate is 30 percent higher than in Missouri -- where juvenile detention facilities are small and treatment and rehabilitation are high priorities. Yet Missouri spends only $60 million on all state juvenile services -- a third less than the $89 million Louisiana spends on prisons alone.

This state has about 1,300 young people -- some under age 14 -- in its four juvenile prisons. The last reliable national tally, in 1999, showed that Louisiana had the second-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the country.

It might be convenient to think that all of these inmates are evil predators who are getting what they deserve.

A small number of inmates do commit heinous crimes, but the majority are serving time on far less serious charges. Department of Corrections figures suggest that 3 percent of those sent to juvenile prison since mid-1993 had committed first- or second-degree murder, armed robbery, aggravated rape or aggravated kidnapping.

In general, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the length of offenders' prison sentences also bear little relationship to the severity of their crimes.

The approach is ineffective, to say the least, as the Missouri example shows.

In recent years, other states have cut costs and reduced recidivism by putting more juveniles in group homes, day-treatment programs and other services.

By contrast, the two most significant juvenile justice initiatives in Louisiana over the past decade were new, privately operated youth prisons in remote locations. The state Department of Corrections was under court order to relieve crowding, and the sleepy cities of Tallulah and Jena needed an economic boost, so up the prisons went.

The results were disastrous. The private management companies skimped on food, clothing and staffing, and both prisons were rife with violence. The state took over management of the Jena prison in 2000, not even two years after it opened, and soon shut it entirely. Tallulah, which opened in 1994, came under state control in 1999.

But reports of abuse by guards and other inmates have continued throughout the prison system. A New Orleans youth suffered a broken jaw at Tallulah. In a stairwell at the Bridge City prison, a teen of Indian descent was beaten up by youths who called him "Osama bin Laden." It's common knowledge among guards and inmates which areas aren't covered by surveillance cameras.

Warehousing and brutalizing inmates won't help them mend their ways. Giving them a chance to redeem themselves is a matter of simple decency, and it's also in the best interest of all Louisianians. Yet many offenders suffer from drug problems, mental illnesses or serious learning disabilities, and they aren't getting the help they need.

To settle lawsuits filed by prisoners and the U.S. Justice Department, the state has beefed up medical and educational services within its juvenile prisons. But in a fundamentally defective system, incremental change isn't enough.

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From the dismal results it produces, you might conclude that everyone involved in Louisiana's juvenile justice system is incompetent or indifferent. But in fact, Louisiana has plenty of people who think both juvenile offenders and the public at large deserve a better deal.

The Times-Picayune editorial page staff has interviewed legislators, juvenile judges, corrections officials, prosecutors, defense lawyers, outside experts, parents and juvenile offenders over the past year. There are prosecutors who wonder whether defendants are getting the representation they need, judges who worry about prison conditions, parents who fret that the Department of Corrections has become the social worker of last resort.

The time is ripe for reform. Over the past year, a Juvenile Justice Commission created by the Legislature has been hearing complaints about the system, and the commission's advisory board has drawn up a list of reforms. Now legislators need to make something of these good ideas.

On their own, though, all the statistics, position papers and commission reports in the world won't make a difference unless average Louisianians recognize the need for change. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to turn out career criminals or productive citizens? Are we satisfied with the present disaster, or do we have the brains and the will to fix it?

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Next: Because Louisiana skimps on alternatives to prison, too many juveniles wrongly end up in jail.



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