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June 27, 2002


Re: June 24, 2002 La. Spotlight editorial: "Budget holes missed in state's new budget"


Dear Mr. Bankston:


I write to comment on Melinda Deslatte's June 24, 2002 article titled "Budget holes missed in state's new budget."  Ms. Deslatte correctly warns of the possible future budget shortfalls but incorrectly seems to place blame on the legislature.  In at least one area -- juvenile justice -- any future budget shortfalls and problems will be squarely the fault of the administration.


This past session, Sen. Donald Cravins gave the state a golden opportunity to get the state out of a very bad deal: the Tallulah juvenile prison.  His amendment to HB 1 would have funded the facility for 6 months and dedicated the remaining $8 million to community based alternatives to costly and ineffective incarceration.  The amendment never made it out of the finance committee because Commissioner Drennen warned that if the state abandoned the Tallulah contract, the state's bond rating would suffer.  This is in spite of the fact that for years now Secretary Stalder has told the legislature that the Tallulah contract is voidable at no penalty to the state.


Ms. Deslatte also missed the real potential for increased costs in our juvenile justice system.  Two years ago, the state signed an historic settlement agreement with the U.S. justice department that, if implemented, would have transformed the state's juvenile prisons into safe, effective facilities that provided young people an opportunity to turn their lives around.  While there have been improvements in education and medical care, all of Louisiana's facilities remain dangerous places where youth are more likely to be injured from violence than rehabilitated.  Due to the enormous problems that remain, and the state's refusal to take the dramatic steps necessary to fix them -- such as closing Tallulah and sending unequivocal orders to staff that violence is not tolerated -- there is the very real possibility that the state will be faced with millions of dollars in litigation costs that are sure to result from its efforts to get out of the settlement agreement early next year.


Secretary Stalder is correct that he and the Governor requested an extra $6 million for community services and that the legislature did not give it to him.  What Ms. Deslatte failed to point out was that he sought this in addition to the over $120 million that he spends on juvenile justice, with the majority going to ineffective, dangerous and wasteful prison beds.  The fact is that the problem with Louisiana's juvenile justice system is not a lack of money, it is a lack of leadership.


Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 350-600 non-violent youth who do not need expensive juvenile prison beds, but could be better served in alternative programs in our communities without a risk to public safety.  Fortunately there has been leadership on this issue.  Last year, after Chief Justice Calogero raised the critical need for reform, Rep. Mitch Landrieu sponsored HCR 94 establishing a joint legislative juvenile justice study commission.  During public hearings this past winter, there was near unanimity in the testimony of the need for more community based alternatives and less prison beds.


The answer is not to spend more money, but to spend it wisely.  Left to the current administration, Louisiana's juvenile justice budget will balloon, leaving us with not only the highest incarceration rate for kids, but millions of dollars of community programs layered on top of the prison beds.  There is a better way, one that leaves more options for effective treatment and rehabilitation for prosecutors and judges while providing prison beds for violent offenders.  I only hope the legislature and Supreme Court continue to lead on this issue because it sure is not forthcoming from the administration.





                                                            David J. Utter, Esq.




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