NEW ORLEANS – Yesterday, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJRAIC) discussed Governor John Bel Edwards’ and the Office of Juvenile Justice’s plan to build a new youth prison in Monroe, Louisiana. The prison is being built despite objections from young people, youth justice advocates, and community members. This meeting represents the first time the JJRAIC has met in five years.
System-involved individuals, state legislators, and youth advocates discussed the harms caused by Louisiana’s youth prisons, which traumatize children and cost the state billions of dollars a year according to the JJRAIC. JJRAIC says that Louisiana has ignored “repeated calls for much-needed changes to the juvenile justice system, including ignoring calls from parents to release their children amid COVID-19, with young people behind bars at particularly high risk of contracting the virus. All this even though data shows youth incarceration increases the likelihood that youth will end up in the adult criminal justice system.”
“It seems like we’re spending a whole lot of money on what doesn’t work,” said Senator Joseph Ward III (R) after seeing the costs of incarcerating youth. Data released by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) shows Louisiana spends $154,760 annually to incarcerate one young person. By way of comparison, Louisiana spends only $11,038 annually to educate a young person.
The JJRAIC was established in 2003 to reform the state’s juvenile justice system, which they call “broken” due to stories of abuse in youth prisons in Louisiana. Nearly twenty years later, they say that the system is still ineffective, expensive, and harming generations of children.
Tamia Cenance, a Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children Youth Leader and member of FFLIC’s Black Girls Rising, spoke about the intergenerational stressors she experienced in her family due to her father’s incarceration when he was a child. She says that her father attended numerous schools that were ill-equipped and unwilling to handle his symptoms of ADHD, resulting in him cycling through the criminal justice system, where he experienced abuse and violence. Cenance stated: “We continue to invest in a system that does not work…I’m here because I wouldn’t want anyone else to live with the experiences my family lived with.”
Instead of building a new prison and investing in a system that they say doesn’t work, advocates called for investment in public education, mental health services, and economic opportunities that will have a lasting impact on young people.
Gina Womack, Executive Director of FFLIC, and Vice-Chair of the JJRAIC, also commented, “Other places are doing a lot to close prisons because prisons are not working, and they are not keeping our public safe. So why are we choosing to spend this amount of money on rebuilding when the national trend is to do something different?”
Youth justice advocates say that they hope this meeting of the JJRAIC will represent the first steps in fully realizing the role of local leaders to protect and care for every young person in Louisiana. The next JJRAIC meeting is set for Tuesday, March 2, which is open to public comment and attendance.