Jim Beam: Law targets 17-year-olds

Published 7:21 am Saturday, June 17, 2023

The Louisiana Legislature made a positive juvenile justice move in 2016 when it passed the “Raise the Age” law by overwhelming margins. The legislation phased 17-year-old offenders into the juvenile justice system in order to keep them out of adult prisons.

Unfortunately, the change could go off the books seven years later unless Gov John Bel Edwards vetoes Senate Bill 159 passed at the recent legislative session. It is Sen. Stewart Cathey Jr.’s second attempt to send 17-year-olds charged with violent offenses back to adult prisons where they could face sexual abuse or be kept in solitary confinement.

The 2016 “Raise the Age” Senate bill passed the upper chamber 36-1 and unanimously in the House. The Advocate reported at the time that its passage made Louisiana the 42nd state to charge 17-year-olds as juvenile offenders.

The newspaper said youth advocates say adult jails place 17-year-olds at a greater risk of physical and sexual assault; often isolates them for long periods of time; deprives them of education; helps some become hardened criminals and puts them at an increased risk of suicide.

Edwards said at the time, “We are no longer giving up on our young people. Rather, we are giving them a chance to get their lives back on track.”

Cathey, R-Monroe, got his bill out of the Senate last year, but it died on the House calendar. Cathey has had major support for his efforts.

Among his supporters have been Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, District Attorney Tony Clayton of the 18th Judicial District composed of Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes and this year from state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport.   Seabaugh had a similar bill that cleared the House this year, but it died in the Senate.

Louisiana does have a problem housing juvenile offenders but sending 17-year-olds back to adult prisons isn’t the solution. Rep. Gregory Miller, R-Norco, had success at the just-ended legislative session with a better solution.

Act 145 of 2023 that has already been signed by the governor creates a Juvenile Justice District that includes Ascension, Assumption, St. Charles, St. James, and St. John the Baptist parishes.

Jennings Mayor Henry Guinn a year ago said city leaders met with district judges, the district attorney, sheriff’s officials, State Police, and other government agencies to discuss locating a regional juvenile justice detention center in the area.

Guinn urged area public officials that don’t have juvenile detention facilities to partner with their parish governments and sheriffs’ offices in an effort to create a regional center.

The Jeff Davis Police Jury unanimously adopted a resolution on Feb. 8 this year supporting creation of the Acadiana Regional Juvenile Justice District. Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, said it would include Acadia, Evangeline, Jeff Davis, New Iberia, St. Mary, and Vermilion parishes.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury operates the Office of Juvenile Justice Services that has earned national recognition for its work with juveniles who are under 18 years of age. In addition to detention, the jury’s website says programs and services of that office provide early intervention with youth at risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Calcasieu Parish began its pursuit of a juvenile detention center in February of 1967. It planned to build a $238,000 structure through voter approval of two new property taxes, one temporarily for construction, and the other for ongoing operations and maintenance. Both taxes were approved on April 18, 1967.

Groundbreaking for the new center took place on March 20, 1968. A superintendent was named in December. The Calcasieu Parish Juvenile Detention Home was opened Oct. 22, 1969. Mrs. Wilhelmina Lyles, parish juvenile officer, said it was open 24 hours and four youngsters were brought to the home the night before.

The juvenile justice center was located about one mile east of Louisiana 14 on the extension of Prien Lake Road. It stayed in operation until Hurricane Laura hit this area in 2020. However, a new facility was already under construction at that time right next to the old facility.

Anthony Celestine is director of the Office of Juvenile Justice Services, a department under the Calcasieu Police Jury, and the new facility is state-of-the-art. Any public official in Louisiana interested in juvenile justice could benefit by visiting with Celestine and touring the facility.

The state’s juvenile justice facilities have had some major problems. That is why it is important for local public officials all across Louisiana to assume the responsibility for caring for their own juveniles who get into trouble with the law.

Reps. Miller and Romero are taking steps to do just that. Putting juveniles charged with violent crimes back into adult jails isn’t going to solve any problems.