Sunday, July 21, 2024

LaRose: Governor faces critical decision on Louisiana’s juvenile justice approach

by BIZ Magazine

Ample attention will be paid this week to see if Gov. John Bel Edwards follows through with promised vetoes of three bills the Louisiana Legislature approved that target LGBTQ+ youth. Meanwhile, another group of youth advocates hopes the governor strikes down what they see as an equally concerning proposed law. 

A 17-year-old accused of committing a serious crime in Louisiana can be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system, according to current state law. A bill the legislature approved this session would remove that discretion from judges and force them to treat individuals that age as adults.

The change called for in Senate Bill 159, from Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, applies to a long list of crimes of violence, ranging from purse snatching to first-degree murder. Its stipulations would kick in once a juvenile is suspected of a crime, not later when they are indicted and tried.  

“This is not about people who’ve been charged. This is about people who’ve been arrested,” said Meghan Garvey, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “So many of these kids are never going to be charged with any crime. And if for some reason they can’t bond out, then they can be there for two months and have all of that harm in an adult jail that could be irreparable for some people.”

The Cathey bill became a vehicle for a similar proposal from Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, that hit a dead end in the legislative process. Both lawmakers were in the conference committees that met in the closing hours of the session to address differences between the two chambers, although the end product that gained final approval turned out fairly analogous to the failed Seabaugh bill.

The measure represents another step away from the adult and juvenile criminal justice system overhaul Edwards and lawmakers initiated when he first took office, opponents of the proposal say. Without corresponding investment in the juvenile and adult correctional systems in the interim, they say the changes have not had fertile ground in which to take root.

Ashley Hamilton with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights paints the Cathey legislation and other bills that target youth offenders as regressively punitive rather than therapeutic. She also challenges claims — in Louisiana and across the country — that juvenile crime is occuring at an increased rate, citing a lack of supporting data.  

“We’re going about things in the absolute wrong way,” Hamilton said. “Most 17-year-olds are still in high school, so it’s important that we recognize this age and make sure that we’re nurturing them. When children make mistakes, when children get into trouble, a lot of the crimes that people are talking about are crimes of poverty and crimes of trauma.” 

Although the state’s “Raise the Age” Act became law in 2017, its most impactful provisions still hadn’t taken effect when COVID-19 disrupted society in 2020. As a result, Louisiana’s already frayed juvenile justice system ripped at the seams under the pandemic stress. It forced the Edwards administration to take drastic steps, such as outfitting a former death row building at Angola to house the most problematic youth offenders.  

Lawmakers followed suit and pursued stricter punishment rather than solution-oriented approaches to juvenile crime, according to Hamilton.    

“I really think that a lot of the policies that came up this legislative session were reactionary,” she said. “They lacked creativity, they did not think about human beings from a lens of compassion and, to be quite honest, they just were not smart.”

Other than the three anti-LGBTQ+ bills and some line-item budget vetoes, Edwards hasn’t indicated what criminal justice measures he might reject or approve. His office provided a new list of signed and vetoed bills Wednesday that included a couple pertaining to juveniles.

The governor endorsed Act 418, by Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Metairie, that gives district attorneys 60 days to indict suspects as young as 15 years old for crimes that include first-degree murder, second-degree murder, aggravated or first-degree rape, or aggravated kidnapping. That’s an increase from the previous 30-day hold period, provided prosecutors show just cause for detaining a suspect. 

Another Schlegel bill was also signed into law. Act 420 prevents offenders as young as 14 from receiving probation or a suspended sentence for the crime of carjacking. They also wouldn’t be eligible for a modified sentence until after serving 36 months. 

Many teens actually prefer to be in the adult criminal justice system because it isn’t “so much involved in your business” compared with juvenile courts, Garvey said. The adult system is less confrontational, doesn’t have to consult parents and ensures offenders won’t commit more crimes simply through incarceration. On the other hand, juvenile courts are required to bring parents into proceedings, routinely track students’ school performance and are more likely to monitor compliance with behavioral and addiction recovery requirements of their sentences, she explained.

“In the adult system, they don’t have the time to worry about all that,” Garvey said. “It’s just like, ‘Are you toting guns and sticking people up? Or are you so strung out on drugs that you were on the street?’ It’s just not that high of a level of intervention and observation.”

Critics note lawmakers have also failed to take into account the cost of putting more juveniles into parish jails and adult correctional centers that will be hard pressed to meet constitutional standards to keep young people out of the reach and sight of incarcerated adults.  

There’s growing acceptance that Edwards’ vetoes are only a stopgap measure. A continued Republican majority in the legislature and the likelihood of a GOP governor next year will provide a far smoother path for a more conservative philosophy on criminal justice and other matters.

Advocates of a more progressive strategy on juvenile rehabilitation will take any time they can get to delay what they consider a failed, anachronistic approach that will prove more costly — in all aspects — for the short and long run.

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in Louisiana for more than 30 years.

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