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FROM: The Times-Picayune, 11.08.03

Tallulah and beyond

Tallulah isn't the only juvenile prison in Louisiana. But the problems that have plagued the facility, formally known as the Madison Parish unit of Swanson Correctional Center for Youth, say a lot about what's wrong with juvenile justice in our state.

Though most of the youths incarcerated there come from the populous southeastern part of Louisiana, the state put the prison in Tallulah as an economic-development project for that depressed North Louisiana city. In that limited labor pool, finding people with the training and temperament to oversee young offenders has been nearly impossible. There have been reports of violence almost since the day Tallulah opened -- and even after the state took the prison over from a private company that had a sweetheart deal to own and operate it.

In the juvenile justice system, the state's job isn't just to punish minors who commit crimes. The state is also supposed to look out for their welfare and work for their rehabilitation. This isn't only for the good of individual offenders; all of society benefits from a juvenile system that turns out productive citizens rather than violent, traumatized shells.

Given all these concerns, it's no mystery why New Orleans Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty concluded last week that letting young offenders serve their sentences in Tallulah would be a dereliction of his duty.

Consider what happened to S.D. Judge Doherty freed the New Orleans teenager, who is known in court papers only by his initials, in December after concluding that guards at Tallulah broke his jaw in a fight. The state Department of Corrections maintains that three separate investigations found no evidence that guards were responsible for the youth's injury, but inconsistencies in the guards' stories gave Judge Doherty reason to doubt the state's position. Earlier this month, a state court of appeal upheld his decision.

On Tuesday, the judge ordered that youths whom his court had placed in the custody of the Department of Corrections be transferred out of Tallulah and into some other facility.

Whether it will stand up to further court scrutiny is a different question. While the judge notes that the state Children's Code requires him to act in the best interests of the youths under his jurisdiction, state law also stipulates that the Department of Corrections alone has authority over the placement of youths in its custody.

Regardless, Judge Doherty deserves credit for taking his obligations seriously. His order affects only six youths, but it increases the momentum for reform.

Throughout the year, an advisory panel for the Legislature's Juvenile Justice Commission has been compiling evidence of the system's woes and investigating a number of potential changes.

At the commission's request, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation took a close look at juvenile incarceration in our state. The Casey report is credible. It comes from a division of the foundation that uses business methods to study public-policy issues, and the analysts responsible for the report have experience in private-sector consulting.

What they found was disturbing. While nonviolent offenders far outnumber violent ones, the state has far more beds available in youth prisons than it does in less restrictive settings. Sentencing for the same crime differs greatly from parish to parish and judge to judge. Black youths go to jail longer than white youths who commit the same type of crimes.

The commission's advisory board is developing a plan to deal with such problems. A draft of its recommendations offers a long and varied list of options: a broader range of punishments for juvenile offenders, better sharing of information among agencies, increased fund-raising efforts, more training for judges and changes in the state bureaucracy.

The key to success will be to develop an ambitious but realistic action plan. Past attempts at overhauling Louisiana's juvenile justice system have fallen short not because of active opposition from any particular quarter, but because of inertia and lack of organization. A thorough overhaul of the juvenile system wouldn't just affect offenders and their families. It would also involve judges, the Department of Corrections, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, social workers and others.

Convincing all those interests to agree on a course of action and then follow through on it won't be easy. But the commission has made a promising start.




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