Louisiana’s troubled juvenile prisons are “at full bed capacity” and can no longer accommodate juvenile delinquents, state officials said in a letter to juvenile judges last week asking judges for help in releasing some low-risk teens in their communities.
“The Juvenile Justice Bureau is working diligently to resign or seek your permission to release juveniles on parole,” OJJ officials said in the Nov. 10 letter, which The Advocate | Preserve the Times-Picayune. “However, until OJJ can gain momentum to increase our state’s bed space, we cannot safely place more youth into the agency’s care.”
The lack of space at the facilities comes as Louisiana’s juvenile justice system is reeling from years of understaffing and security problems, and grappling with a new wave of prison violence.
OJJ Assistant Secretary Bill Sommers and Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson said in the letter that the bed shortage applies to both secure and non-secure facilities. It stems in part from damage to a secure care facility for at-risk youth near Monroe, which is still being repaired after a massive riot, the letter said.
Sommers and Nelson also attributed the problem to an excess of juvenile delinquents serving so-called long-stay OJJ custody, even though they could legally be released into “less restrictive” programs.
“There are a number of youth in the care of OJJ who could be legally released to continue their rehabilitation in a less restrictive community-level setting,” the letter said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how long OJJ’s facilities had faced capacity constraints. An OJJ spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the letter. In a message, Sommers said the agency was “just trying to clear more space safely.”
To fix the problem, the letter asks judges to grant parole to some juvenile offenders in OJJ custody. The agency has a mix of youth in both non-secure and secure care facilities who could easily be relocated to less restrictive settings, officials wrote. This includes some youth who are ready to be “safely reintegrated into the community,” the letter said.
Some juveniles who have already been convicted in court are serving their sentences in local juvenile detention centers rather than state OJJ facilities. The return of eligible teenagers to their communities could free up beds within OJJ, which in turn would allow the agency to accommodate youth who are currently being held in local facilities, the letter said.
Judges in New Orleans were only recently briefed on the OJJ policy, according to Orleans Juvenile Court Judge Candice Bates-Anderson. During a City Council budget hearing on Wednesday, she said the letter highlighted the importance of programs for youth offered by the court.
“The court has no control over who OJJ lets in. We have no control over the capacity or number of OJJ,” Bates-Anderson said. “But we all know that it’s very important that we have a place and a way and a place for the youth to go and programs for the youth to be involved.”
Because the state refuses to accept juveniles who have been ordered to provide “safe care,” the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center could soon be overcrowded, Judge Ranord Darensburg said.
When questioned by District A councilman Joe Giarrusso, the judges said they were frustrated by the state’s move.
“For the citizens, for the community, for the children and for everyone involved, it is very problematic and it needs to be resolved,” Bates-Anderson said.
Darensburg said the letter is particularly concerning because judges only decide to send youths to state custody after careful consideration.
“Once a decision has been made that a child should be placed in safe custody, that decision must be upheld because it speaks to the safety of the community and our ability to administer justice to all in the community,” Darensburg said.
Amid the deepening crisis in the juvenile system, a New York Times report last month found that a privately run juvenile detention center contracted with OJJ was plagued by abuse and attempted suicide among teenagers incarcerated there.
The report came several weeks after state leaders implemented a plan announced earlier this year to move some juvenile offenders to a facility in an old death row building at Angola’s state prison. They described it as a last-ditch effort to house and rehabilitate youth who had committed some of the worst acts of violence or attempted to flee other youth facilities across the state, such as the embattled Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish.
OJJ officials are promising the Angola facility, which is self-contained and features high fences draped in black fabric, will keep youth off the periphery of adult inmate movements at the notorious jail. The move has nonetheless sparked backlash from lawyers, pundits and former officials in the justice system.
On Tuesday, some of the groups studying the Angola plan called OJJ’s proposed solution to the bed shortage a welcome change.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that this dire situation is an opportunity for the juvenile court to take a different approach,” said Gina Womack, director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an advocacy group.
“It is long past time to send children home, most of whom are in prison for nonviolent crimes. It is also unfortunate that it took a crisis to compel the state to act,” Womack added in a written statement.
This is an evolving story; check again for updates. Authors Matt Sledge and Jacqueline DeRobertis contributed to this report.