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Louisiana looking at ways to solve youth jail woes

By Patrick Sloan-Turner

Recent developments have induced debate over the suitability of detention centers like the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, and a new bill designed to address troubles at juvenile facilities is making its way through the Louisiana Senate.

On April 2, Sen. Heather Cloud introduced Senate Bill 431 to "provide a mechanism" for applying state funds to juvenile detention centers.

According to the most recent iteration of the month-old bill, SB431 would create a Juvenile Detention Commission to oversee and provide additional funding to the state's juvenile facilities via grants and a special fund. 

The senator said Louisiana's shortage of beds allotted for juveniles is a major motivation for the bill.

"While they're awaiting sentencing, there is a huge shortage of bed space across the state," Cloud said, adding most parish jails can't hold juveniles as they're not outfitted to do so.

Because of this, Cloud said she's heard calls from all over the state asking for help, as some jurisdictions are forced to spend up to $400 per day per inmate for them to be housed in places like Alabama or Mississippi.

Tony Clayton, 18th District Attorney, also noted that the shortage of beds can prove costly and cause other issues.

Clayton said many times, courts that cannot hold these juvenile inmates instead send them home under electronic monitoring only to commit the same crime again.

"I think the state can catch up to modern times by building a facility for these kids," Clayton said. "If we were to do so, it would definitely drop the crime rate."

Many leaders have acknowledged the need for new adult and juvenile facilities, like Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome did in a statement last week. On April 19, seven juvenile inmates of East Baton Rouge were sent to Jackson Parish Correctional Center, after the Sheriff declared the local parish prison not suitable to house them.

The East Baton Rouge Juvenile Detention Center has had a wave of problems in recent years like escapes and frequent fights.

It's important for juvenile facilities to house inmates from their own community, Clayton said, to mitigate violence between inmates.

"You don't want to mix the juveniles from New Orleans with the juveniles from Baton Rouge because they're going to become territorial," he said. "We just can't keep shipping them away."

Cloud said that under SB431, the commission would look at whether the facilities' placement reflected its area's need and also require every facility to hold 30% of bed space for post-adjudicated youth, which the senator added would help with the statewide shortage.

A methodical solution that goes beyond funding is needed, Cloud said, citing an example at the Acadiana Youth Center in Bunkie.

The facility is only five years old, but it was not built to accommodate the inmates who were held there, the senator said. Inmates have been able to break down thin doors, climb inside ceilings built too low and pull out cameras. 

Cloud believes that the enaction of a commission through SB431 will prevent this in the future.

"I think it'll be one of the wisest ways investments we've made in juvenile housing in the history of the state because we're learning from our past mistakes," she said.

Written by Patrick Sloan-Turner for the Advocate.


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