Juvenile Justice: Louisiana Reforms Lag


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Despite progress, Louisiana's juvenile justice overhaul still lags original vision

Seven years ago, Louisiana's juvenile justice reformers put the fate of children above all else in their founding document.

“The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the children and families of Louisiana are the state's most precious resource,” proclaimed Act 1225 of 2003. The noble words read in stark contrast to the reports of state-sanctioned abuse in the preceding years.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Louisiana, claiming youth offenders received beatings from guards, beat up each other, were denied adequate medical care and education and were attacked and sexually assaulted by other inmates. The Louisiana Department of Corrections settled the suit in 2000, denying the allegations but agreeing to overhaul policies. Reform efforts gained momentum. By 2003, the state Legislature passed Act 1225, which called for a seismic shift in how the state treated juvenile delinquents.

But seven years later, one of the Act's authors sees little cause for celebration.

“I'd have to say we have defaulted on those promises,” said Donald Cravins, former state representative and current mayor of Opelousas.

Even as the state currently overhauls its review process and implements best practices at two of its largest facilities, a comparison between Act 1225 and today's state of reform reveals years of inaction and lapses in the current system. Armed with a mandate for reforms seven years ago, Louisiana has struggled since then to live up to the full meaning of its words.

The points of reform

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2003 on what was wrong with Louisiana's youth correctional facilities. After consulting with judges, prosecutors, probation officers and others, the Casey Foundation found a system that blindly and arbitrarily handed youth their fate, offered little treatment, crowded them into prisons for lack of other options and often abandoned them there with an unpredictable review process.

The report urged Louisiana to greatly expand alternatives to incarceration, close one of the big lock-up juvenile facilities and address racial disparities in a system four times more likely to incarcerate blacks than whites.

Cravins and co-author Mitch Landrieu, the former legislator and current mayor-elect of New Orleans, incorporated the report's recommendations into their ambitious legislation.

Act 1225 removed all youth from Tallulah's correctional facility, a lock-up with a reputation for brutality and squalor that lasted through name changes and both private and state stewardship. It required objective assessments and regular reviews of every juvenile for placement in the least restrictive situation. It called for uniform standards for the detention centers that hold juveniles before they pass through the system. An implementation commission, an advisory cabinet and research council were established to chart a course away from the expensive, overcrowded secure-care facilities to smaller groupings closer to home, and to make certain all reforms came to fruition.

To stem a tide of truant, suspended or expelled youth flooding the system, the act called on the state board of education and local school boards to revise “zero tolerance” policies and come up with a plan to promote discipline and increase access to mental health services. To help pay for the cost of overhauling an entire justice system, the legislation compelled the former Department of Public Safety and Corrections, the departments of Health and Hospitals, Social Services and Education among others to share their information in a central database and consolidate all of their dealings with juveniles into a single state agency. The state would then reinvest savings from cutting redundant services into community-based programs based on scientific evidence of success.

The fruits of reform

Louisiana's juvenile justice officials and their critics alike marked the last night a youth spent in the Tallulah facility a major achievement of reform.

“The closure of Tallulah was the single most identifiable part of reform,” said Michelle Smith, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ). “It was the starting point.”

The Casey Foundation report estimated $10 million to $18 million in annual savings if the state shut down one of its secure custody facilities. Smith acknowledged the expectation of savings exceeded the actual funding freed by moving youth out of Tallulah, but the money still “exponentially” increased the number of community programs.

Almost seven years after Act 1225, the juvenile justice system finally has an evidence-based instrument to assess the risks and needs posed by each juvenile, and it is implemented statewide according to OJJ. The agency hopes the Structured Assessment for Violence Risk in Youth, or SAVRY, will identify youth who would benefit from less restrictive supervision rather than maximum security facilities. In the moments leading up to a judge's decision on a juvenile's fate – where the Casey Foundation once found a woeful lack of information – 4th Judicial District Judge Sharon Marchman said SAVRY and similar mental health and substance abuse screening tools have given her a more complete picture of the youth offenders.

“My comments would be limited to what we see in Ouachita and Morehouse parishes,” Marchman said. “SAVRY has been valuable. We started using it last year and my opinion is we're getting good information.”

But other key provisions of Act 1225 have been slower to arrive, and in some cases never appeared at all. The single state entity and the potential money it would have freed for programs never materialized.

Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said a lack of clarity and leadership for the single agency ultimately doomed the idea.

“There was a great deal of planning following passage of legislation,” Kaplan said. “Then the state just made a decision that it was too much change and created a firewall in OJJ.”

Out of the failed effort the Office of Youth Development, which later became OJJ, took control of the juvenile justice system from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Suzy Sonnier, deputy secretary with the Department of Social Services, said separating the juvenile system from the adult system was a major step in reforms even if the single agency never materialized.

“Then, to date, the work that DSS began with foster care, that led us to a lot of collaborative efforts in OJJ with residential care reform and a lot of licensing reform.”

Sonnier and Office of Juvenile Justice Executive Director Mary Livers both hold great hope for a “systems of care” model that would bring together child agencies to recognize common needs and resources. Agencies would then combine efforts, sometimes with federal help, to get the most out of state money and intervene early before children became stuck in the system. The approach would continue much in the spirit of the single state agency idea without actually housing it one group, but “systems of care” is still in development.

“I think that effort has continued,” Sonnier said. “There's not, today, one system where agencies can look and see what youth have been provided. But we're looking to do it in a way to leverage our resources.”

Without a single agency to do it, the state also never established standards or license requirements for its detention facilities, a gap addressed in a current bill by state Rep. Damon Baldone D-Houma. The state board of education's master plan for revising “zero tolerance” rules and refining discipline rules made little difference in Louisiana's dismal record of expulsions and dropouts.

Kaplan said programs that stressed positive behavior in schools received little support. A study by the Friends and Family of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children found 12.1 percent of the state's students were suspended out-of-school in 2007-2008, compared to the national average of 6.9 percent. Louisiana's expelled 1.1 percent of its students in the same period, a rate five times the national average of .2 percent. The Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, the group convened to ensure the reforms happened, was staffed part-time by the lieutenant governor's office. But the group never received its own paid staff, according to Kaplan, and suffered from constraints.

“That I think was a challenge to the members of the JJIC certainly,” Kaplan said. “In the absence of staff to do their work, they didn't have the resources.”

The mixed legacy of reform

In December 2009, The MacArthur Foundation announced more than $3 million in grants for Louisiana. The foundation gave the “Models for Change” grants, which include a $385,000 grant to the University of Louisiana at Monroe, to bring about changes in the state that would serve as a model for other juvenile justice reformers. The grant also intends to address the disproportionate amount of black youth in secure custody.

Livers points to the decrease of juveniles incarcerated in secure-care facilities as progress of the reform efforts.

“Back in 2003, there was about 2,000 offenders in secure care,” Livers said. “Today there's around 480 in secure care.”

But of those in secure care, 53 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, according to OJJ statistics. Most of these nonviolent offenders, around 31 percent of the entire secure-care population, are incarcerated for property crime.

Livers said case loads for probation officers, once deemed overwhelming at 40 by the Casey Foundation, now average in the ideal range of 25 per officer.

But in the middle part of the spectrum, between probation and secure care, the state is still struggling to provide options. OJJ currently has no moderate-security residential facilities, though at least one facility near Columbia is in the works. OJJ is planning on opening the 10-acre facility in early 2011 and expects it to provide 48 beds for adjudicated youth and help further lower the numbers in secure custody.

Marchman said recent closings of two private service providers, Hope Youth Ranch in Minden and Joy Youth Home in Keithville, have her concerned about where to place juveniles.

“(Keithville) closed and that facility was helpful because it specialized in younger children and that was very much needed. It was a place where younger, smaller children could go if they required an extra measure of safety,” Marchman said.

Livers said the closing of both private facilities hasn't impacted OJJ's ability to place youth in need of supervision.

The district judge said she also has few options on where to send children with mental health issues and oftentimes she is forced to send them to Swanson Correctional Center, a secure-care facility in Monroe. The episode reads like one of the points in the Casey Foundation's 2003 argument for reform.

“Youth with behavioral, mental health and substance abuse needs are incarcerated because treatment services are lacking in their communities,” the report said. “As a result, many low-level offenders who do not pose a public safety risk are placed in state custody.”

“That's the best place I can put children,” Marchman said of Swanson. “The mental health treatment at Swanson … is very high quality, but it's an abomination that we have to send children there to give them the best treatment.”

Livers said OJJ is planning an intermediate facility outside the fence at Swanson to provide alternative care such as substance-abuse and mental health screenings.

The reports of juvenile abuse, the original spark of reforms, have declined at two of the three remaining secure-custody facilities. The two facilities, the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans and the Jetson Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, also happen to be where OJJ has implemented the LaMod, a version of the respected Missouri Model that stresses a higher ratio of staff to youth, staff engagement with young offenders and therapeutic efforts applied within the smaller group settings.

According to OJJ statistics, altercations in Jetson dropped from around 75 per month in February 2008 to less than 30 per month in November 2009. After peaking at nearly 50 altercations per month in the summer of 2008, Bridge City reported less than 20 by the end of the year.

But OJJ purchased the results in southern Louisiana largely at the expense of Swanson. Livers said OJJ had the resources to put two of the three remaining secure facilities on the Missouri Model. With legislators threatening to close Jetson and advocates strongly opposing any increases at Bridge City, Swanson and its large campus became the last holdout by default. Bridge City and Jetson's youths per dormitory hover around 12. LaMod calls for a ratio of at least 2 staff per 12 youth on a dormitory except for the midnight shift where there can be one staff with roving supervisors throughout the facility.

Swanson houses up to 24 youth per dorm.

Swanson's staff total, 318, would appear to be more than enough to supervise population of 228 youth. Smith with OJJ said only 189 of the 318 staff are youth care workers, the rough equivalent of guards. The number of counselors and teachers are based on the number of youth and the services needed, specific services provided and integrated into the model.

OJJ Communication Director Jerel Giarrusso said the 189 youth care workers work in shifts.

“You would never see 300 staff at Swanson at the same time,” Giarrusso said.

In part because Swanson's dorms hold twice the model's ideal number of youth, the facility's reports of fighting trended toward 60 per month late 2009.

Kaplan said the result is youth living in fear.

“We still take calls from the facility,” Kaplan said. “We got a phone call from a child saying he was so afraid for his life that he couldn't sleep at night. In the last month there's been two broken jaws, a broken arm. The level of violence at Swanson has definitely escalated.”

Livers said the number of youth per dorm at Swanson is based on the needs of the system.

“Just by sheer numbers it's difficult to manage 24 youth in a secure facility,” Livers said. “You're going to have more problems, more issues.”

Mark Steward, director of the Missouri Youth Service Institute group that advises the state on adopting the Missouri Model, said it took 30 years for his state to fully implement needed changes and counseled patience with the seven years Louisiana has had, especially with Hurricane Katrina wreaking havoc with juvenile justice staffing and progress.

“In the early 2000s, Louisiana had one of the most horrible prisons in the country,” Steward said. “Now it's a decent system and getting better.”

Sonnier with DSS echoed those sentiments, saying that changing an entire system with several different agencies takes time.

“For some people it has moved too fast, for others not quickly enough,” Sonnier said.

Cravins, the former state representative and current board member of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, falls into the second group.

“The reform we envisioned called for serious changes,” Cravins said. “And it's a failure of commitment from the Legislature and the executive branch. In order to bring about reform, you have to have a lightning rod, a person whose sole focus is that issue and a commitment has to come from a broader section of the Legislature.”

The co-author of Act 1225 worries Louisianians will see the current state of juvenile justice, with juveniles inside Swanson still phoning out their fears and stories of violence, as the best that reforms can offer, and a backlash against what he sees as real reform might follow.

If progress stalls and public support for reforms erode, Cravins fears Louisiana will have squandered the outrage and sense of action engendered in the early 2000s.

“The chances after that are slim to none,” he said.


This piece, which appeared in The News-Star is one of a series of original criminal justice journalism projects around the country produced by 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Fellows. They were coordinated with editorial input by Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice. We thank the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for their generous support of this project.

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