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FROM: Times-Picayune

Band-Aid or amputation

Monday March 10, 2003

Imagine making a doctor choose between amputating a patient's broken arm and putting a Band-Aid on it. In Louisiana, prosecutors and judges face choices that are about that stark.

N.B. and a friend vandalized two cars outside a school near his family's Kenner home. The boy was later caught with marijuana.

Grace Bauer, who lives in the southwest Louisiana town of Sulphur, says her son had a drug problem, helped break into a truck and took his parents' gun to another child's home.

Terrance, a New Orleans teenager, was unruly at school, but his record was clean until he got into a fight at a state group home.

These three teenagers entered the juvenile justice system with different problems -- problems that, over time, might have responded to drug rehabilitation, mental health care or educational adjustments. All three ended up in juvenile prison. If they had broken the law in, say, Missouri, these young men might have found themselves somewhere in a network of small residential treatment programs.

But Louisiana skimps on alternatives to incarceration. That imbalance wastes money, jeopardizes public safety and ruins troubled but salvageable youths. Lawmakers ought to address the problem immediately.

Right now, our state has about 1,300 juveniles in prison. The Legislature's Juvenile Justice Commission asked the Annie E. Casey Foundation last year to analyze what those inmates had done. The foundation found that burglary and theft are the most common property charges; assault and battery are the most common violent offenses. Three-quarters of juvenile inmates were convicted of nonviolent crimes, and most had no prior offenses on their records.

Even so, there are more slots available in Louisiana's youth prisons than in residential programs, day treatment and other community programs combined.

Moreover, the alternative programs are substantially cheaper than jailing youths. By a conservative estimate, incarceration costs $120 per offender per day, or about $44,000 per year. That's at least half again as much as residential programs, twice as much as day treatment and eight times as much as asking so-called "trackers" to keep tabs on low-level offenders who live at home.

Our state doesn't rely heavily enough on those programs, and probation isn't much of an option, either. The state has more than 5,000 youths on probation and parole but fewer than 200 officers to monitor them; the average caseload per officer is 38. Hardly anybody believes that a few phone calls and the occasional face-to-face visit will help wayward youths change their ways.

The end result is that, in many cases, Louisiana leaves troubled young people mostly to their own devices until the courts throw them in jail.

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Unfortunately, keeping bureaucrats happy is more important in Louisiana than rehabilitating juvenile offenders. Once the state opens a large prison, it has to have the bodies present to justify operating it. Because prisons gobble up so much money -- $89 million out of the Office of Youth Development's $128 million annual budget, it has less money available for community-based programs.

The sheer size of Louisiana's four youth prisons -- the largest, Jetson Correctional Center for Youth in Baton Rouge, has room for about 560 inmates -- creates other problems. It's harder to maintain order in our state's jails than in Missouri, where youth-corrections facilities hold between 20 and 40 beds each.

In Louisiana's vast juvenile prisons, inmates with educational deficits and emotional disorders are less likely to get the treatment they need to become productive citizens. Ms. Bauer, whose son served time in Jetson, says his drug treatment program there consisted of watching a video -- the same video -- once a week. Former Jetson inmate Jennifer Kiefer says her substance-abuse treatment consisted mainly of pamphlets on why drugs are bad.

Clearly, there are better options. Missouri, home to two large metro areas and a million more people than Louisiana, has just 720 juvenile detention beds, which is a little more than half of the capacity in our state. Juvenile centers there generally don't look like jails. The typical employee isn't a guard but rather a college-educated counselor who helps young offenders understand how their actions affect victims. To skeptics, this approach may sound hopelessly New Agey, a fusion of psychobabble with "Sesame Street."

But most members of the Legislature's Juvenile Justice Commission who visited Missouri in the past year came back dazzled. Recidivism is lower than in Louisiana, and Missouri is spending barely half as much on juvenile corrections. Remaking Louisiana's system along those lines has to be a long-term goal.

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The Department of Corrections has announced plans to reduce the population at all four juvenile prisons. But shutting one down entirely will generate more savings -- and more money to pay for alternatives to jail. Tallulah, which houses 240 youths and has been an albatross since it opened, is the obvious candidate.

The Casey Foundation believes that Louisiana could free up 350 or more beds by processing cases faster, shortening its boot camp program, reducing sentences for minor felonies and drug offenses and incarcerating fewer youths for misdemeanors. In a separate study, a George Washington University consultant hired by the Department of Corrections and the U.S. Justice Department concluded in November that 75 youths in state custody should be released within three months, 150 juveniles should be released immediately and 40 never should have been committed in the first place.

It would be naive to think that all of Louisiana's juvenile offenders are angels who can go peaceably into society. But there's little doubt that the state can release low-level offenders from prison now and begin placing them in treatment programs closer to their homes.

Parents like Ms. Bauer, N.B.'s father and Terrance's mother, Flora, aren't in denial. They're full of anguish over their children's past troubles and worried about the future. Those emotions are well-founded, because the present system is deplorable. Young people shouldn't go to jail just because the state can't figure out any better options.

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Next: The Department of Corrections is ill-equipped to make essential changes to the juvenile justice system.



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