Jim Beam column:’Raise the Age’ law is working

Published 6:43 am Tuesday, May 3, 2022

By Jim Beam

American Press

Committee approval of a state Senate bill that would repeal the “Raise the Age” law and send Louisiana’s 17-year-old offenders back to adult prisons is a knee-jerk effort that should be derailed as quickly as possible. It comes as no surprise that state Attorney General Jeff Landry is promoting the effort. 

Landry is one of those “lock them up and throw away the key” guys. Back in 2019 he was pushing an effort to expand methods of execution from legal injection to include nitrogen gas, hangings, firing squads and electrocutions. 

A Nola.com report said Landry, a Republican, said he would back legislation adding death penalty methods because it would make it easier for Louisiana to kill the 72 people sitting on death row. 

Sen. Stewart Cathey Jr., R-Monroe, is sponsor of Senate Bill 418 that Landry is supporting. Current law provides that 17-year-olds would be tried in juvenile court. Cathey’s measure would have them tried in adult court. 

Landry and 18th Judicial District Attorney Tony Clayton testified that out-of-control teenagers are largely responsible for the increase in violent crimes. Jeff Asher, a data analyst for AH Datalytics, which does work for New Orleans law enforcement agencies, told the committee the data shows no evidence that Raise the Age contributed to the statewide increase in murder or gun violence. 

Clayton and Landry need to go back and listen to the testimony when Raise the Age was enacted in 2016. Act 501 of 2016 was heard by two committees in the Senate and two in the House. There were no objections when the legislation was reported favorably by all four committees. 

 

Also testifying in support were Dane Bolin, Calcasieu Parish Police Jury assistant administrator who has extensive juvenile experience, and Bill Sommers, deputy secretary of the state Office of Juvenile Justice who was in charge of Calcasieu Parish’s Office of Juvenile Justice Services at the time. 

SB 324 by former Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, was approved 33-4 in the Senate and 97-3 in the House. The act allows the court discretion as to whether to transfer the child to an adult facility for detention prior to trial as an adult. 

Louisiana and South Carolina became the 42nd and 43rd states to set the upper age limit at 17, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. If convicted, they would go to juvenile detention facilities instead of adult prisons.

 

Legislative committees in 2016 heard testimony about an LSU study. Nola.com reported that the study said, “Current behavioral research indicates that, compared to adults, most 17-year-olds are less capable of impulse control; more prone to risky behavior; less able to regulate their emotions; different in their approach to moral reasoning; less able to consider the long-term consequences of their actions; and more susceptible to peer pressure.” 

Why Clayton and Landry insist on putting 17-year-olds with those character traits in adult prisons is mind-boggling. 

Before the 2016 law passed, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights said, “Across the country, 18 is usually considered the age of adulthood: 17-year-olds can’t vote, join the military, or even buy a lottery ticket. But if they are arrested in Louisiana, they are automatically prosecuted and incarcerated as adults.” 

Rachel Gassert, policy director for the center, told The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette in a 2019 report that about 80 percent of incarcerated juveniles in Louisiana are nonviolent offenders. Many are jailed, and she said there are better alternatives. 

Gassert said at the recent hearing that Clayton’s real problem is that his parishes don’t have an adequate detention center for juveniles. “He will continue to have this problem,” she said, even if the Raise the Age law is repealed. “That is not a reason to repeal a law that’s going to impact the entire state … They are kids.” 

Perhaps the best reason to defeat repeal of the law is that studies show 17-year-olds in adult prisons are often preyed upon by adult inmates and they come out as seasoned criminals. 

Yes, teenagers have been involved in some major crimes recently. However, they are the ones who need to be tried. If convicted, judges will have the final word about where they should be imprisoned. 

Why inflict serious punishment on the 80 percent of teenagers who are nonviolent offenders? They can be better protected in juvenile centers and rehabilitated through programs at those centers. 

The Legislature needs to send Cathey’s bill to the graveyard as quickly as possible.