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FROM: The Advocate

Juvenile justice overhaul clears Senate committee

A juvenile justice overhaul package passed a Senate committee Wednesday, including a proposal to end mandatory minimum sentences for most child criminals.

One of the measures, Senate Bill 957, would require only juveniles convicted of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, treason and sex crimes be held until they turn 21.

Judges could decide the sentences of any youth under 17 convicted of a lesser, non-violent crime.

The same bill would allow parole and suspension of sentence for all crimes committed by juveniles, who now can't get paroles or suspensions.

The Senate Judiciary B Committee passed a related measure, Senate Bill 796, setting up a panel to review, and possibly release, juvenile offenders considered to be no longer dangerous before their sentences are up.

Decisions by the review panel would be binding, bypassing judges who currently decide if a juvenile offender may be released or probation ended.

The two measures are part of a package of bills aimed at overhauling Louisiana's much-criticized juvenile justice system. Critics say it is poorly run and inmates are subject to abuse by other prisoners and guards.

The package would create the state department of Children, Youth and Families, which would oversee juvenile offenders and new rules about how and when a juvenile can proceed in court without a lawyer.

A similar package is working its way through the House. If passed, the bills require the Legislature and the governor to fine-tune and finance the measures during the 2004 legislative session.

The measures do not tackle the idea of closing one of the state's juvenile prisons, nor do they estimate the cost of the changes.

Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, sponsor of both measures, said those issues will be dealt with later. State District Judge Donald Fendlason of Covington told the committee that the proposals could help reduce the high number of juveniles imprisoned in Louisiana.

"If we're not No. 1 in that category, we're probably No. 2," Fendlason said.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association, took issue with ending mandatory minimum sentences, the creation of a new department and the lack of a price tag on the proposals.

Prosecutors support the overhaul in principle, but creating more bureaucracy without giving a price tag isn't the way to go, Adams said.

Initially, there were estimates the state could save between $6 million and $10 million by closing a facility, Adams said. "Now, we're told that's not going to happen soon," Adams said. "Nobody knows how much this is going to cost."

Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, agreed. "Nobody is going to convince me that doesn't have a cost to it," Dardenne said.

Cravins said one way a new department would be funded is by ending mandatory sentences, which goes hand-in-hand with the risk review panel proposed in SB796.

The risk-review panel would be composed of a juvenile probation officer, a psychologist, warden or deputy warden, representative of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and a retired judge with experience in juvenile matters.

Under the bill, the panel would consider the juvenile inmate's record, information provided by the prosecutor, warden and the inmate.

The panel would look at the risk to the inmate and to society before deciding whom to release, said Bernard Boudreaux, executive counsel to Gov. Mike Foster.

A juvenile convicted of first- or second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape, armed robbery or treason would not be eligible for review, Boudreaux said.

Any decision by the panel would be final, Boudreaux said.

"If the panel acts, the person would be released," Boudreaux said.

Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder told the committee that a review panel could reduce the number of juveniles in jail.

Stalder said his department reviews juvenile inmates every 90 days and sends the reports to the appropriate judges.

Often, though, the judges don't act on the reports, Stalder said.

"A lot of time, we just don't hear back," Stalder said.

A review panel would effectively take the decision whether to alter someone's sentence out of the hands of judges, Dardenne said.

The package now goes to the full Senate.



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