Photo credit: Matthew Hinton of The Advocate
Long before Louisiana dived into reforming its criminal justice system lawmakers restructured the state’s juvenile system with the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act 1225 in 2003. This came after reports of violence within the secure youth detention centers. Additionally, litigation with the Department of Justice found that conditions of confinement were unconstitutional for some offenders in Louisiana’s juvenile system. Fifteen years later, and after applying the best practices of the Annie E. Casey Foundation supported Missouri Model for juvenile systems, Louisiana’s juvenile justice system is still fraught with many challenges that need addressing according to a recently released Legislative Auditor’s report.
The Baton Rouge Advocate, in a recent article on the Legislative Auditor’s report, stated that while the overall juvenile population in secure care has decreased significantly, the prevalence of violence and chronic staffing shortages has caused the system to once again “run afoul of federal laws intended to protect youths serving time in so-called secure care facilities.” According to The Advocate’s editorial on the matter, the juvenile justice system, just as other critical state departments providing crucial services to vulnerable populations, is presently facing an $11 million budget cut due to the state’s revenue shortfall, on top of the Governor’s budget cut of $4 million for the 2018 budget. The continued budget cuts the department has had to absorb for the past three years has prevented the agency from providing much-needed services and also from opening a state of the art 72-bed youth secure facility in Avoyelles Parish. With the proposed cut that could take place if the Legislature does not find additional revenue, the system will have to close five regional probation offices and eliminate 114 staff positions, all in an environment of low morale and high turnover. According to the Legislative Auditor, turnover rates range from 62.3 percent at the Bridge City facility near New Orleans to 30.6 percent at Swanson in north Louisiana, near Monroe.
The Auditor’s report also found that the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) staff were not conducting needed quality assurance audits during 2010 to 2015, and even though the audits were resumed in 2016, OJJ did not ensure the safety-related action items were corrected within the prescribed six-month period after the initial finding. Youth drug use has increased from 2.3 percent in 2013 to 9.5 percent in 2017 according to the report, yet OJJ staff were not collecting the correct data on why the drug tests were run to know whether the drugs were being brought into the prison or if the youth were using them while on furlough.
The Auditor’s report also focuses on the increase in violence within the secure care facilities stating that it has had a 53 percent increase in “fights per youth” from 2013 to 2017 and a 111 percent increase in the staff’s use of physical restraints. The largest increase in fights was reported at Bridge City which had increased by 121 percent.
Given the apparent issues facing OJJ at present to bring the system into compliance, which the department did agree with all of the Auditor’s findings, and the need to absorb the new population of 17 year-old offenders due to the “Raise the Age” legislation passed in 2016 which takes effect in March, 2019, it is going to require a fully funded budget to accomplish all of the above. As The Advocate wrote, “If we as a state aim to do this work on the cheap, it’s not going to succeed and ultimately the youth troublemaker will turn into the adult criminal getting his advanced degree in burglary or worse in the Department of Corrections”. Louisiana’s continued budget crisis must be addressed now with sensible fiscal responsibility on the part of Louisiana’s law makers. The state’s incarcerated youth are really hoping the seventh time in session will be the one that provides the resources to keep them safe by funding the services they need.