This has been a noteworthy month for Louisiana's worst prisons. Here are just a few items making news:
• Last week, Dr. Mary L. Livers, head of the state's Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), abruptly announced her retirement following my column about horrific conditions at OJJ's juvenile prison in Bridge City. Livers got the OJJ job in 2008 under then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Gov. John Bel Edwards reappointed her. However, in recent weeks she faced withering criticism from state senators over conditions at the Bridge City Center for Youth (BCCY), and her retirement came as momentum was building in the Senate not to confirm her reappointment.
• On Thursday (May 19), Orleans Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty will conduct a hearing on whether conditions at BCCY are "so out of control that they may rise to the level of being unconstitutional." Doherty ordered OJJ officials to present reasons why he should not declare BCCY constitutionally unfit to house juvenile offenders. His order came after testimony in two cases detailed frequent fistfights, escape attempts, broken bones and severe staffing shortages.
• Last week, Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman filed his reply to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) motion asking that a federal judge appoint a receiver to take control of Gusman's notoriously out-of-control jails. That motion was joined by inmate plaintiffs and supported by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Among other complaints, the feds claim Gusman has complied with less than a dozen out of more than 170 provisions outlined in a massive federal consent decree the sheriff signed more than two years ago. Although he opened a new $150 million jail last fall, Gusman has failed to control prison violence or end jailhouse suicides.
• On May 25, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk will begin an evidentiary hearing on the DOJ's motion to put a receiver in charge of Gusman's jails. Appointing a receiver is an extraordinary remedy, but Gusman has proved so incapable of meeting deadlines and reducing violence that Africk may be left with no alternative.
• Last week, the state House Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved Sen. J.P. Morrell's "Raise the Age Act." The measure would put 17-year-olds under the authority of the juvenile justice system rather than automatically trying them as adults — or holding them in adult prisons before trial. Louisiana is one of only nine states that exclude all 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system, even for minor offenses. Morrell's bill still must clear the House Appropriations Committee and the full House.
The uproar over conditions at BCCY could have derailed the Raise the Age Act, but hopefully lawmakers will recognize that the solution is proper funding and staffing of OJJ — not continued placement of 17-year-olds in the adult prison system.
As more and more con- servatives are concluding, Louisiana cannot incarcerate its way out of crime — particularly when jails fail to meet constitutional standards for safety and security. Such jails cost taxpayers untold millions and ultimately increase rather than reduce violence.