LaRose: Lack of options behind recent moves away from progressive juvenile justice reform

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, arguably the state’s most progressive prosecutor, swam against the current last week when he secured an indictment against a teenager accused of attempted second-degree murder to be charged as an adult. It’s the first time in his term that Williams will elevate a juvenile case for a crime other than murder, The Times-Picayune reports.

It’s the latest instance in which the pendulum of juvenile justice reform is swinging back toward the right. As of late, it appears leaders have no other choice.  

State corrections officials, with the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, plan to relocate youth deemed the highest risk from juvenile correctional centers around the state to a “transitional treatment unit” at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The building where they will be held is distinctly apart from the adult prison.

Some of the juveniles will come from the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, where 17-year-old Kendell Myles was one of six teens who escaped the facility in July. He and an accomplice allegedly shot and carjacked a man in Uptown New Orleans. 

More than two dozen incarcerated youth have broken out of the Bridge City center this year, and staff members there have ended up hospitalized after confrontations.

In a statement, Williams explained his decision to try Myles as an adult was because he was already serving a juvenile life sentence for a separate armed robbery.

“While I still believe in handling juvenile matters in the juvenile system to ensure developmentally appropriate adjudication of young people, the juvenile sentencing limits would be inadequate to ensure that these young people are appropriately held accountable for these crimes,” Williams said.

Put another way, the Myles case presents an easy example for Williams to flex a little tough-on-crime muscle without abandoning his reformist roots. But it’s not likely to relieve any of the pressure on him to be more aggressive in efforts to seek accountability in New Orleans’ ongoing violent crime wave.

The same goes for Edwards, who notably endorsed changes in law to decriminalize simple marijuana possession and has backed shorter prison time for certain offenses. The relocation of youth to Angola will be temporary, the governor has said, as will any appeasement of those who want more severe consequences for juvenile offenders.      

Louisiana intends to upgrade its existing youth centers, many of which are outdated and ill equipped to keep incarcerated teens and staff safe. It’s not likely the renovations will be regressive – think cell blocks instead of dorm units — thanks to advocacy groups that are likely to challenge any measures that are more punitive than rehabilitative.

It will be interesting to see whether Williams and Edwards continue to take stricter approaches toward the most serious youth offenders or stay on the path toward reform. It seems the decisions we’ve seen them make in recent weeks are because of the lack of alternatives. 

Greg LaRose is editor of Louisiana Illuminator

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