As Louisiana this month began implementing its “Raise the Age” law, which phases 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system, officials are already bracing for “growing pains.”
And youth advocates are voicing concerns about the system supposed to care for this additional population.
Since Louisiana moved 15 years ago to overhaul a juvenile justice system notorious for its brutal treatment of youth, legislative victories and policy changes have significantly reduced the number locked up and provided a more therapeutic environment for those in custody.
While moving further in that direction remains the goal of the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), youth advocates and leaders say they believe the state’s juvenile prisons remain too dangerous and too full—issues exacerbated by outdated and unnecessarily large facilities they worry continue to operate with little outside oversight.
The state’s two largest lockups for juveniles — one outside of New Orleans and the other in Monroe — are structurally unfit to carry out the “Missouri Model” of care Louisiana adopted for its juvenile secure custody facilities in the early 2000s.
The model is based on treatment instead of punishment, as well as small, dorm-like housing instead of cells. At both of the state’s secure facilities, the population size remains well above what experts consider to be ideal, and fights and violence are ongoing issues.
But advocates say they are hopeful those challenges can be addressed with comprehensive oversight and adequate funding.
“Although we have come a long way in the past two decades, numerous recent public accounts of violence in secure care facilities raise concerns about the safety of the youth and staff in those facilities,” reported the state’s Task Force on Secure Care Standards and Auditing in February.
The task force, commissioned by the legislature in 2017, determined there was a “glaring gap in oversight of Louisiana’s secure care facilities,” and recommended last month that the state contract for regular reviews of these lockups, to ensure the Office of Juvenile Justice meets certain standards of safety, treatment and structure.
System ‘Routinely Brutalized’ Children
“Louisiana cannot afford, nor should it wish to risk returning to, the days when children were routinely brutalized while held in state custody,” the report says.
While advocates see secure juvenile lockups as something to be used sparingly, they say they prefer such facilities over confining youths in adult jails or prisons, as had been the case for 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes.
“Despite their problems, juvenile facilities are still safer for kids than adult jails and prisons,” said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center on Children’s Rights, who chaired the task force.
Gassert and fellow proponents are optimistic the current OJJ administration is open to adopting proposed changes, and think the agency’s recent progress is a positive sign for what could come next.
“We’re very encouraged by the willingness of the new administration to do some self-reflection and self-regulation,” said Meredith Angelson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center based in New Orleans, who focuses on juvenile justice.
In mid-2016, months before James Bueche was named OJJ’s deputy secretary, there were almost 400 children in the state’s three juvenile lockups, which the agency refers to as secure care facilities.
At the end of February, there were about 215 children locked up, an almost 50 percent reduction in two-and-a-half years, according to OJJ data. And while that seems significant, some still say it still doesn’t go far enough, especially when the secure facilities still have so many institutional challenges.
“We’re putting way too much of our money into secure, deep-end confinement,” said Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national nonprofit that advocates to keep children out of the adult criminal justice system.
“There are alternative ways that keep kids connected to their parents and communities, while they are held accountable.”
The concerns that surround Louisiana’s juvenile lockups today remain a far cry from the system in the 1990s, which brought a federal crackdown over the atrocities in juvenile jails, particularly two privately run facilities that were later shuttered.
Then, revelations of institutionalized violence and inhumane treatment bred a groundswell of support for sweeping changes to the juvenile system, culminating in a 2003 reform package. The new laws focused on decreasing the number of youth in secure custody and transforming the detention model to be more youth-friendly.
But how effective the changes have been remain open to debate.
Violence at Louisiana’s two largest secure facilities — Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe, which has the capacity for 124 juveniles, and Bridge City Center for Youth, which can accommodate 94 youth — has been an ongoing issue, drawing recent concern after a scathing legislative auditor’s report in June that found spikes in fighting. The report said that inadequate staffing of the facilities contributed to the violence.
In 2018, there were more than 500 reports of violence at Swanson in Monroe, including youth-on-youth assaults or attempted assaults and youth attempted or actual assaults on staff, according to OJJ records. At Bridge City there were just under 430 such reports of violence last year.
At Swanson Center for Youth at Columbia, which has capacity to house 48 juveniles, there were about 150 such reports of violence — about a third of the numbers from the two larger facilities.
And while youth advocates agree children are bound to act out, especially those dealing with trauma, they also note that smaller, updated facilities meeting proper standards, like Swanson at Columbia, will provide better outcomes.
“Bridge City and Swanson-Monroe are also not conducive to OJJ’s therapeutic model,” the 2018 legislative auditor’s report says. “According to the National Institute of Corrections, the physical structure and environment of juvenile confinement facilities has a significant impact on the youth behavior and the likelihood of violence.”
OJJ plans to open the Acadiana Center for Youth this month, a new facility built in accordance with the “Missouri Model,” which Bueche said will provide them a second facility that meets their preferred standard of care.
However, he expects the new facility will only help accommodate the additional placements they expect from Raise the Age, which means they’ll have to keep open older facilities he’d prefer to close.
Bueche said OJJ has been working on a plan to fund new facilities to replace Swanson at Monroe and Bridge City, which are both aging and unable to support their new model of care, even with renovations.
“It’s crazy we continue to put that much money … into facilities and we never are going to get that return,” Bueche said.
On top of physical deficiencies of the two largest OJJ lockups, which serve youth adjudicated by a juvenile court, the 2003 reforms also planned to regionalize these facilities to keep children closer to their communities.
But that idea has all but been abandoned amid budget cuts and funding challenges.
Bueche said he hopes the Acadiana Center for Youth can help keep some children closer to home, but that placements depend on the programs children need.
None of the data provided to The Advocate through a public records request included information on the Ware Youth Center in Coushatta, which houses all OJJ females in secure custody, because OJJ does not directly run that facility.
Rather, it operates through a contract with a nonprofit.
Yet Ware is a facility with continuing challenges. In February, the facility reported two suicides within days, events that advocates called deeply troubling and completely preventable.
“The safety of youth and staff in our juvenile prisons is always a concern,” Gassert said. “The best way to increase safety is to keep the population as low as possible, which makes facilities more manageable and easier to staff appropriately.
“We should always use alternatives to incarceration when at all possible, as we know children are safer and more successful in their homes and communities, rather than in institutions.”
The task force that studied the workings of the state’s juvenile justice system called for more outside oversight of its juvenile facilities to help keep them safe and ensure their programming is effective.
“Unlike other state-run or contracted facilities housing children, there is currently no independent oversight mechanism for secure care facilities,” the task force reported.
They recommended OJJ appoint an independent contractor to monitor these facilities that the state entrusts to house and rehabilitate some of the most vulnerable youth.
Bueche said he is currently reviewing the task force’s recommendations and is open to their suggestions.
But growing concern also surrounds how OJJ will continue to improve without a driving force with authority.
The reform package the legislature approved in 2003 included setting up a Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission to see to the “continued reform of the state’s juvenile justice system.”
But that commission has not met since 2016.
“We’ve been pressing the committee to meet,” said Sonji Hart, a deputy director of the nonprofit Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, whose director has been appointed to that commission. “The commission has a responsibility to our children. You need to meet, you need to have these meetings, we need to approach (reform) in a holistic way.”
The recent task force recommendations also pointed out this additional gap in oversight, and recommended passing a state law to require the implementation commission meet twice a year, in addition to one public meeting.
These immediate changes in oversight will be key to addressing pervasive issues in the juvenile justice system, especially at its secure lockups, but Hart noted there are many challenges she hopes Louisiana will not neglect.
The system continues to disproportionately affect African-American children, and outcomes for delinquent youth often depend on their geographical location. Also, funding for indigent defense in the state remains inadequate and schools too often turn to the justice system for discipline.
“We notice that there’s a lot of disconnect between a lot of the players,” Hart said. “We’re trying to start things on the front end, instead of working back to forward.”
This is a slightly edited version of an article which appeared in The Advocate, written by staff reporter Grace Toohey, a 2018 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow, as part of her fellowship project. Please access the full story and related videos here.