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FROM: Times Picayune

Calling Gov. Foster

Tuesday April 08, 2003

If imprisoning teenagers for relatively minor crimes prevented them from committing major ones later, Louisiana would have solved its juvenile crime problem years ago. Instead, our state has an expensive disaster on its hands -- a disaster that Louisiana legislators ought to address during the present session.

An unusual alliance of youth advocates and fiscal conservatives is backing a reform plan developed by the Legislature's Juvenile Justice Commission. But that effort won't succeed without Gov. Foster's support.

The governor hasn't yet staked out a public position on the issue, but the case against the Louisiana juvenile justice system is damning.

The state's youth prisons now hold about 1,300 juveniles. Some of them have committed serious crimes. But three-quarters of the state's juvenile inmates are in prison for nonviolent offenses, and most have no prior offenses on their records. Incarcerating each one costs taxpayers roughly $44,000 to $68,000 a year.

That money has produced abysmal returns. Louisiana's juvenile recidivism rate is 30 percent greater than that of Missouri, where detention facilities are small, rehabilitation is a high priority and overall expenses are relatively low.

The Juvenile Justice Commission recommended a long list of improvements. The most pressing goal is to shut down one of Louisiana's four youth prisons and add slots in residential programs, day treatment and other cheaper, less restrictive settings.

The second key goal is to take responsibility for juvenile offenders away from the state Department of Corrections, which wasted past opportunities for reform by building new prisons. Louisiana needs a new youth services agency that can balance punishment with treatment.

Members of the commission have filed bills that would further these goals. The governor should back the legislation. Two years ago, he recognized that the adult imprisonment boom was bankrupting the state and hurting public safety, and he lobbied the Legislature to cut mandatory minimum sentences.

Unfortunately, some baleful signals are coming out of the governor's camp. In an interview last month with the Associated Press, Bernie Boudreaux, the governor's hugely influential executive counsel, assailed the notion of putting "social workers in charge of people on probation." Mr. Boudreaux, a former district attorney whose son is undersecretary of corrections, also said he didn't "want a social experiment that's doomed to fail."

In truth, Louisiana has been conducting a social experiment on troubled young people for decades. The costs of this experiment are intolerable -- huge prison budgets, endless litigation, lives wasted. Though the notorious Tallulah juvenile prison opened less than a decade ago, four of its alumni have already been sentenced to death row.

Louisiana has to stop preparing troubled teenagers for adult prisons and adult crimes and start helping them become productive citizens. And with Gov. Foster's help, that process can begin.



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