Louisiana’s new state youth corrections agency reported progress yesterday in reducing the number of juveniles held in youth prisons and expanding community-based services, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Still, advocates and local community providers said they are not being consulted about what is needed to rehabilitate offenders locally.
Simon Gonsoulin, assistant secretary of the Office of Youth Development, told the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Planning and Coordination Board that the numbers in state youth prisons are down about 1,200 in January 2003 to 600 this month and that the state plans to remove all offenders from the criticized Tallulah facility by early June. The state has expanded community-based services and will soon unveil a pilot program.
Members of the board, which was created to advise the state and lawmakers on policy changes, questioned why the agency is drafting plans without consulting with judges or local agencies to figure out what is needed. “After all this work, everybody still operates in a vacuum,” said Judge Nancy Konrad, a juvenile judge in Jefferson Parish.
New Gov. Kathleen Blanco took the advice of juvenile justice advocates and others to separate the adult and youth prison systems. Critics say the system locks up too many nonviolent youths instead of focusing on rehabilitation. Tallulah was singled out over the years for what critics say has been a pattern of inmate abuse.
Blanco created a “firewall” in the corrections department; Gonsoulin reports directly to her. Gonsoulin has been trying to change the culture at the three youth prisons to make them more conducive to rehabilitation. This means that the dorms will each hold no more than 25, and they will be decorated to look less like “barracks.” Libraries have been created for the dorms, while throw rugs adorn the floors. The agency will buy wider, thicker mattresses and get wooden bed frames that would resemble regular beds, not those typical of penal institutions.
The agency needs to develop smaller programs in local communities, said David Utter of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “What we have seen is that big facilities with tons of treatment and therapy have the same recidivism rates,” he said. “It is the bigness.”