return to press room

FROM: The Advocate, 3.8.03

Reform needed for juvenile jails

If there is any part of Louisiana government that cries out for reform, it is the juvenile justice system -- or lack thereof.

For years, too many juvenile offenders have been shuttled through the courts and off to prisons to learn the skills of accomplished adult offenders. Despite heroic efforts by some officials and judges, too many problems remain.

That's why we welcome the report of a Juvenile Justice Commission that looked into the problems and found ways to start overhauling today's system.

Over time, the report envisions moving away from putting juvenile offenders in prisons and moving toward cheaper alternatives. A juvenile offender in many cases can be turned around, but it requires intensive supervision and attention to the things that the young adult hasn't gotten in life -- education, training, stability and positive role models.

While there is surely going to be a need for at least one higher-security juvenile prison, other states have shown that much more can be done than simply locking up offenders.

The state of Missouri, for example, handles about the same number of offenders as does Louisiana. But the offenders are distributed around the state in specifically designed programs. Like the majority of the Juvenile Justice Commission members, we believe that's a far superior model than the Department of Corrections' Angola-lite system today.

The commission forwarded more than 50 proposals to the governor, Legislature and Supreme Court. Many of them will require a lot more than just token actions. "We're really not talking about doing anything fast," said the commission chairman, state Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans.

For example, the commission proposed a serious look at merging juvenile and children's services from three state departments -- Corrections, Health and Hospitals, and Social Services -- into one agency. Some of the old hands in state government said that's a tall order in bureaucratic terms. "I just don't want to keep creating things," said Rep. Billy Montgomery, D-Haughton. "We got to slow this thing down."

We do not doubt that Montgomery is right about the problems that arise from creating a new bureaucracy. It could cause some problems, and might provoke turf battles that would further delay more meaningful reforms.

At the same time, reforms can't wait forever. A juvenile court judge from Jefferson Parish, Nancy Konrad, urged the commission to endorse the recommendation -- and said time is of the essence. "Children are slipping through the cracks every day. We need to find a single point of entry where anyone with a child with a problem can get the services they need," she said.

Louisiana has been on the front pages of national newspapers because of the history of brutality and scandal involving juvenile justice. While people may disagree about many of the recommendations, we hope that the commission's report provokes some real changes that will make a difference.



return to press room