In early July, Gov. Mike Foster signed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003. Part of that act requires the closure, by the end of 2004, of the Tallulah juvenile prison, which had been called one of the most violent of its kind in the nation. Its elimination alone is a great victory.
Yet it's too soon to call the reform a complete success. The recent death of a young man at the Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth and the high injury rates at all of the state's juvenile facilities ("Little Angolas," Aug. 19) make it clear that our youth are being placed in danger every day -- not only in Tallulah, but also in the state's three other juvenile prisons. Last year, the system held about 1,200 youth and averaged 500 injuries per month. That is far too high.
The injuries are often senseless. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which monitors conditions at the juvenile facilities, says that some kids have told them recently about seeing guards slam youth against the wall for wearing their jeans too low or walking on the back of their shoes. Youth, especially younger and smaller kids, are threatened with rape or forced to perform oral sex on bigger kids.
Contrast this scenario with the state of Missouri, which shut down its big juvenile facilities in the 1970s. Today, there are 32 facilities across the state, each holding 30 to 40 kids, who live in a homelike environment run by college-degreed staff. Everyone -- staff and kids alike -- calls each other by first names and wears regular clothes. The focus is education and rehabilitation.
In Louisiana, kids live in military-style dorms where they strong-arm (or bribe) guards to bring in contraband, fight routinely to earn respect, and wear -- when punished -- the same orange jumpsuits worn by adult prisoners. The kids at Tallulah call it Little Angola for a reason -- the state is showing them no other future except prison.
St. Louis, like New Orleans, has a high crime rate and its share of other social problems. Yet it has five residential and four day-treatment facilities for juveniles, all located within the city. Instead of riding for hours to see their sons and daughters on visiting day, parents or grandparents can hop a city bus and be there within 15 minutes. Alternately, staff will pick them up to make a visit or to participate in family-counseling sessions with their child.
All this work pays off when the kids go home. Three years after they've left Missouri's juvenile-justice system, only five percent of the boys and one percent of the girls are reincarcerated. In Louisiana, after five years' time, between 65 and 70 percent of kids are rearrested (but not necessarily convicted or sent to prison).
Consider also that many incarcerated kids have already suffered their share of loss and grief. Cecile Guin, who directs social-service research at Louisiana State University, has interviewed hundreds of youth held inside the state's juvenile prisons. "A lot of the kids have come from either abusive homes or violent neighborhoods where they're witnessed a lot of violence. They've been treated pretty bad in their lives," Guin says. These are injured children who need calm, secure surroundings. "These kids have to be somewhere where they know they're safe from any further violence, from any further abuse. That's the only way people heal," she says.
The Juvenile Justice Reform Act points the state in the right direction. Among other things, it condemns large facilities and "declares it to be the policy of the state of Louisiana to assist in the development and establishment of a community-based, school-based, and regionally based (juvenile-justice) system."
This is almost exactly what the state was working toward back in the 1980s, when the youth division of the Department of Corrections was headed up by the late Don Wydra, whose booklet Timeline for Change outlines almost these same goals. After the gubernatorial election of 1991, Wydra was replaced, and the state shifted back toward big facilities like Tallulah, which was built soon thereafter.
In 1991, the newly appointed Corrections administration also had to deal with a juvenile crime wave that had created a "get-tough" attitude among voters and judges. But DOC administrators clearly knew Wydra's work and should have resumed his plan once juvenile crime waned. Just about everyone who works at the DOC has seen the research, so they know that large adult-style prisons simply do not work for young kids.
The state Legislature has some strong voices -- including those of Sen. Don Cravins and Rep. Mitch Landrieu -- advocating for juvenile-justice reform. But, to ensure its full and genuine implementation, we need an incoming governor who believes in the rehabilitation of youth. Voters should ask each gubernatorial candidate whether he or she will follow the direction that the Legislature has laid out in the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003.
Because no Louisiana youth should have to risk living in a Little Angola.