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FROM: Times-Picayune

Gambling with lives

Thursday March 13, 2003

Louisiana's juvenile justice system works badly and costs too much. Instead of rehabilitating the state's most troubled children, we give them expensive scholarships to Angola Prep.

An advisory board of the Legislature's Juvenile Justice Commission has offered a number of promising ideas. These immediate goals stand out:

The highest priority must be to replace some of Louisiana's 1,300 prison beds with slots in less expensive, less restrictive settings. Shutting down one of the state's four juvenile prisons is the best option, and Tallulah is the obvious candidate for closure.

The second priority is to put a new state office, rather than the Department of Corrections, in charge of the punishment and rehabilitation of juvenile criminals. And with the help of new regional juvenile justice boards, the new office could identify and fill gaps in services throughout the state.

The commission endorsed these reforms last week. This newspaper strongly urges legislators and Gov. Foster to back them as well.

Louisiana's juvenile justice system has many other problems. Over the past year, witnesses before the commission brought forward a number of worrisome complaints: Young defendants face pressure to waive their right to counsel. Confidentiality rules prevent schools, sheriffs' offices, courts and social-service agencies from sharing information with each other. In most parishes, a youth's fate depends on judges, prosecutors and public defenders who deal mostly in adult criminal law.

Meanwhile, outside studies have concluded that poor juvenile defendants generally get poor legal representation, that penalties for the same offense vary greatly from judge to judge, and that black youths spend more time in prison than white youths who commit the same offenses.

All of these problems are serious, and legislators need to deal with them individually.

Still, lawmakers should never lose sight of the fundamental defects in Louisiana's juvenile justice system: Our state relies too much on prisons -- and the corrections department that operates them -- to handle young offenders. We don't do enough to prevent troubled children from becoming minor offenders and minor offenders from becoming major ones.

Fixing these flaws is crucial.

It's encouraging that, within the Juvenile Justice Commission, support for change comes from across the state and the political spectrum: After taking a hard look at the system, Democrats like state Rep. Mitch Landrieu and Sen. Diana Bajoie of New Orleans and Republicans like Rep. Diane Winston of Covington, Rep. Danny Martiny of Kenner and Sen. Art Lentini of Kenner have joined together to demand major changes.

So far, the governor has been silent about the commission's work. But the stance he takes will be crucial -- not just in enacting legislation, but also in forcing the state bureaucracy to change its ways.

Gov. Foster recognized two years ago that the adult imprisonment boom of the 1990s was bankrupting Louisiana without making citizens safer. To his great credit, he personally lobbied the Legislature to cut mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of nonviolent offenses, and legislators obliged.

Gov. Foster could play a similar role in fixing the juvenile justice system. And if he is true to his business background, he'll join the cause of reform.

The best policy for dealing with juvenile offenders is the one that produces the best results. What Louisiana has instead is a reckless wager that prison time will scare enough youth offenders straight, and that the threat of prison will deter enough crime, to make the extra expense worthwhile.

That bet has not paid off. Reform is the right business decision and the right moral decision. And now is the right time.



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