A state law requiring the prosecution of 17-year-old offenders as youth rather than adults will have far-reaching implications across law enforcement — and for the youth, their families and communities.
The act, effective July 1, 2018, will mean that Caddo Parish’s 24-bed juvenile detention center probably will have to house between 250 and 300 additional youth offenders each year — with no additional funding and no new beds.
Clay Walker, director of Caddo Parish Juvenile Services, said the detention center probably no longer will accommodate misdemeanor offenders of any age.
That means cops called to local schools to break up fights, or to family homes to intervene in parent-child disputes, no longer will have the detention center as a guaranteed option, Walker said.
The limited detention center space also means that youth who need secure care — just what a juvenile detention center offers — might get transferred to Office of Juvenile Justice custody at the Swanson Correctional Center in Monroe — the equivalent of the state’s adult Department of Corrections rather than a local parish jail.
Or sent back into the community wearing electronic monitoring ankle bracelets.
Law enforcement will need to rely increasingly on nonprofit partnerships and community resources to help youth get back on track, Walker added.
All 17-year-old youth who commit misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses will be prosecuted through the juvenile justice system starting July 1, 2018.
Those offenses include simple battery, simple burglary, disturbing the peace, criminal damage to property, unauthorized entry to a dwelling, simple arson and drug offenses.
Violent offenders also will be absorbed by the juvenile justice system in 2020, though youth who commit severe offenses — including murder, rape, larceny-theft and arson — still will be prosecuted as adults.
The recently passed “Raise the Age” legislation, signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June, cited a study from LSU Health-New Orleans that found 17-year-olds “have a far greater potential for rehabilitation” than adults. The legislation provided no money to help parishes accommodate the change.
The study also found that youth in adult prisons, compared to youth in juvenile detention facilities, are eight times more likely to be sexually abused, twice as likely to be beaten by correctional officers, 34 percent more likely to re-offend and more likely to commit suicide.
Prior to the legislation, Louisiana was one of nine states that still prosecute 17-year-olds as adults.
But with a projected $1.8 million increase in operational costs alone to the Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center, the legislation “is the largest unfunded mandate in the history of juvenile justice,” said Juvenile Court Administrator Ted Cox.
Caddo Parish’s proposed 2018 budget would allow a $3.6 million transfer from its reseve Criminal Justice Fund to the Juvenile Justice Fund to offset the costs.
In addition to costs and caseloads, Walker said, the addition of 17-year-olds will “raise the age” of the juvenile jail’s average from 14 to about 15.
“When an age goes up, they are bigger and stronger. They are also more mature,” Walker said. “So I anticipate the number of issues will go down, but when they do happen, they will be worse.”
Walker also said he agrees with the legislation’s intent to treat 17-year-old offenders as children. Juvenile detention centers focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, Walker said.
“If you want a kid to be like a kid, you have to treat them like a kid,” he said. “If you treat them like an adult criminal, they will become one.”
The Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center is the smallest in the state, and also compared to those in other cities of similar size and demographics: 24 beds compared to 40 in New Orleans, 52 in Baton Rouge, 84 in Jackson, Mississippi, and 119 in Mobile, Alabama.
But Walker also said additional bed space is only one potential solution — and not necessarily the best.
“I don’t want too many beds. If it’s built, it will get filled,” Walker said.
Due to the number of pods at the Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center — two of which house male offenders and one of which houses females — Walker said he will not be able to maintain an age separation.
Juvenile court, diversion
Judges have several options for pre-trial youth not sentenced to a secure facility: release, release with supervision, or release with supervision and a monitor, Walker said.
The national ratio for youth offender to probation officer is 1 to 30. But Caddo Parish’s juvenile probation officers carry caseloads in the low 20s, Walker said.
“We have worked very hard to be below the national average,” Walker said. “We also are trying to add more services and to work with the district attorney to expand eligibility in diversion programs for youth.”
The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office has several diversion programs, in which youth complete classes and community service to have their charges dropped.
Examples are the “Stamp Out Shoplifting” program and school-fight-centered “Conflict Resolution” program. The district attorney also offers a teen court, mentoring programs, and character development curriculum in its other diversion programs in collaborations with the local nonprofit Volunteers for Youth Justice.
“The hope is that with this approach, we will see a reduction in crime,” said Laura Fulco, first assistant to the district attorney.
VYJ’s Shonda Houston-Dotie said the nonprofit’s diversion programs allow youth to be accountable for their actions without causing an undue burden on the juvenile court system for minor misdemeanor offenses.
“This, in turn, allows the court’s resources to be used for serious offenders,” Houston-Dotie said.
Ree Casey Jones, one of juvenile court’s three judges, said her caseload will remain manageable come 2018.
But she added that not every parish jail that might send youth offenders to the juvenile detention center has provided data about how many more youth offenders to expect — in addition to the 250 to 300 who based on historical data would have been placed in Caddo Correctional Center.
“As far as capacity or space, we’re not quite ready,” Casey-Jones said. “We’re going to have to make the best decisions with the space we have to keep the most serious offenders.”
Cox, the juvenile court administrator, said he foresees a need for more probation officers. He also predicted that sanctions, an option for judges to return youth who fail probation terms to detention for short periods, will be more limited.
“We want to put people on probation as much as possible, but the problem is we’re not dealing with kids in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts,” Cox said. “Sometimes they need that sanction. It’s a balancing act between trying to keep our community safe and not making kids into hardened criminals.”
Juvenile Court Judge Paul Young echoed those concerns.
“We’re here to turn the child around, and sometimes that lack of space prevents us from being able to be as successful as we can be,” Young said. “In addition to all the programs and community resources we have, we need that loss of liberty, applied appropriately.”
Another concern with detention space, Young said, is that 17-year-olds are more likely than younger offenders to have to be detained before trial.
“A 13-year-old can’t really flee from trial, but most 17-year-olds could reasonably conclude, ‘I’m better off not showing up,'” Young said.
Youth who fail probation may have to be transferred to the state custody with the Office of Juvenile Justice, Young said, which will put pressure on that agency’s beds.
OJJ Deputy Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Touchet-Morgan agreed that the “juvenile system is better suited to rehabilitate these youth.” She cited the higher success rates for youth in the juvenile than in the adult system.
Touchet-Morgan estimated that, statewide, OJJ will oversee an additional 297 youth on probation after July 1, 2018 and the non-secure care of an additional 20 youth offenders. Touchet-Morgan also projected an additional 67 youth will enter OJJ custody in 2020, when violent offenders also are adjudicated through the juvenile justice system.
OJJ is participating in a special planning committee created by the Raise the Age legislation.
“Within OJJ, we have been exploring providers for services geared towards 17-year-olds in the community, including transitional or independent living,” she said.
Young also said juvenile court judges will “have to use community services more, and more than one time.”
Walker said he has provided police officers with contact information for the local nonprofit Community Renewal, among others, to connect youth offenders with needed rehabilitative services.
Community Renewal Associate Coordinator Mike Leondard said youth offenders in “vulnerable” neighborhoods targeted by the agency will be eligible for both an after-school program and a program to help youth earn their HiSet, or GED-equivalent.
“If they’re trying to get their lives back on track, we have all the resources they need,” Leonard said.
Walker said he gave the Caddo Parish Commission, which helps fund juvenile service operations, several options to help his department accommodate the unfunded state mandate: build a new stand-alone, 48-bed center for $30 million; add 24 beds to the existing building for $12 million; and add staff.
The parish’s 2018 proposed budget authorizes five new security staff, who will act as additional “eyes and ears” around the detention center, said the parish’s director of finances, Erica Bryant.
Walker said he understood that decision, based on voters’ rejection of the juvenile court and jail millage in May.
“When the millage failed, it sent the message that I can’t be building and adding staff,” Walker said.
The five new security counselors will be assigned to the detention center’s three pods, increasing the staff-to-youth offender ratio to 2:8, Walker said.
Walker said the parish also agreed to buy 30 more electronic monitors — or ankle bracelets — to track youth sentenced to monitored probation.
Walker said his department “will be staffed, will be trained and will be ready.”
“What I want to emphasize to the community is that while there will be a handful of 17-year-olds who take advantage of receiving looser sentences,” Walker said. “But that should not outweigh the other 300 who will be given the chance to get their lives back on track.”
by Lex Talamo