Photo from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
Reports of guards molesting children, gladiator-style fighting and a lack of basic education for kids as young as 14 once gave Louisiana’s juvenile justice system the reputation of one of the worst in the country. So in 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed sweeping reforms. Over time, those efforts helped whittle down the number of kids locked in sprawling, prison-like facilities, from more than 2,000 to about 350 today.
Rather than locking up juveniles, Louisiana now relies more on community-based services such as family therapy to deal with behavioral disorders and drug addiction. New rules in youth facilities forbid restraining chairs, mace and excessive time in solitary confinement. On paper, Louisiana is called a “model” state by reform agencies, almost achieving what criminologist Barry Krisberg calls the “American juvenile justice ideal.”
But people close to the system say Louisiana’s reform efforts haven’t gone nearly far enough to be considered a model for anything. Frustrated family members, defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates sharply criticize the way the state treats its youngest convicts. Many say the state’s juvenile justice system is regressing to what made it infamous more than a decade ago.
Grace Bauer, executive director of Justice For Families, a national organization that opposes youth incarceration, says:
Louisiana should be ashamed. The system is not the answer, if kids are getting locked up in one of these cages. It’s so backwards. We’re moving backwards.
Critics say that one of the most telling indicators of this is the state’s lack of investment in facilities that don’t lock up kids, such as group homes and medical treatment facilities. Meanwhile, state officials have decided to build three more prison-like facilities, and construction on one began in August.
Although more juvenile offenders are now in alternative facilities, conditions there sometimes border on inhumane, according to state inspectors. They charge that children are forced to go without prescribed medication, are punished with long stretches in solitary confinement and have been maced by staff.
According to reports by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, created to oversee the system, provides inadequate monitoring of prison alternatives such as group homes, .
We were once ahead of the rest of the country on this stuff, but now it’s almost like the administration is not bothering to read the science that’s out there.
In the 1990s, following a “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice, Louisiana had the highest youth incarceration rate in the country . And youthful offenders were likely to break the law again. Judges handed out inconsistent sentences, and many juveniles ended up in adult courts.
During a series of public hearings, youth advocates, legislators, judges district attorneys and citizens began to identify problems in the system. In 1995, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch determined that all four of Louisiana’s youth prisons violated international human rights standards. Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in the northeast corner of the state stood out, because of its cramped dormitories, windowless isolation cells and pervasive corporal punishment. Children said they never had enough to eat and were often maced by guards.
A 1996 U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that over 20 days 28 children at Tallulah were hospitalized for serious injuries, and some kids clearly suffered sexual abuse. In 1998, the newly formed Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana sued on behalf of youth in Tallulah. When the Justice Department joined the suit, it kickstarted reform of the juvenile justice system.
Things didn’t get better right away. Six years after the Human Rights Watch report, Bauer’s son Corey was sent to Tallulah on a theft conviction. At that time, fractured jaws, broken noses and punctured eardrums were everyday occurences there. Bauer claims that her 14-year-old son was raped, abused and neglected, suffering heart problems, severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 1225, which laid the foundation for therapeutic approaches. The state closed Tallulah and increased supervision of parolees. And the state Office of Juvenile Justice became separate from the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Louisiana changed its policies to emphasize community involvement, facilities that are more like homes and follow-up care after incarceration. The new rules targeted kids who hadn’t committed serious crimes, offering them intensive therapy, treatment for drug abuse and mentorships. In the 11 years since, more and more young offenders have gone to alternative facilities rather than adult-like prisons.
Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton says:
We have the right idea, but we’re in a transition state and still have a ways to go. We’re doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.
Louisiana now operates three youth prisons for teenage boys around the state: Monroe, Columbia and Bridge City, near New Orleans. A private company runs a facility for girls in Coushatta in the northwestern part of the state. These places are not nearly as crammed as they used to be. The rate of youth imprisonment in Louisiana dropped by more than half from 2001 to 2010 — one of the biggest drops in the country.
That’s important because kids are more likely to thrive in community-based programs and group homes than in prisons, according to groups such as the Justice Policy Institute.
The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice contracts with seven non-profit firms to run juvenile group residences and inpatient treatment facilities, and others are available through the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. However, those seven facilities have been flagged for serious problems. According to numerous investigations by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services:
- Children in private facilities are sometimes forced to go without medical care and haven’t been given prescription drugs that they need.
- Youth at some facilities have been restrained or held in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.
- Children say they’ve been abused or maced by staff.
- Employees have been hired without undergoing criminal background checks.
Joshua Perry, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said his staff found dire conditions in the residential children’s home Christian Acres Youth Center, based in Tallulah. When two of his team’s lawyers visited in May, Perry said:
There were dorms surrounded by barbed wire. Children were sleeping in 12-room dorms on old hospital beds. And there were no vocational programs or services for children with special needs. It’s really astonishing how little accountability there is for adults who hold kids’ futures in their hands. Adolescents are really sensitive to hypocrisy. Don’t think they miss it for a second if they aren’t being treated fairly.
Perry believes there are too few of these facilities in the state, which means parents, lawyers and state officials have to travel hundreds of miles to check on kids, and this contributes to poor oversight.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has criticized the way these homes and treatment programs are overseen. The state’s juvenile justice agency can send youth to 44 residential facilities that aren’t prisons, but the Office of Juvenile Justice doesn’t directly run any of them. They aren’t all managed by the same organization, either — a system that, according to critics, invites problems.
Legislative auditors found that the Office of Juvenile Justice had reduced the number of contracts with residential facilities from 20 in 2009 to 12 in 2013. Devastating budget cuts meant that school-based counseling and other community programs, which allowed kids to go home at night, were slashed by 57% from 2012 to now. Yet officials have announced plans to increase the number of prison-like facilities from three to five in coming years.