NEW ORLEANS (WGNO)— From escapes to overcrowding and violence, the state’s juvenile justice system has many problems. Lawmakers in Baton Rouge are proposing changes to the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Senator Heather Cloud stated, “No one within OJJ denies that there are problems. With the stories coming out about escapes and violence within the facilities prove that it’s necessary.”

Cloud is the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 323 which, in part, seeks to move away from the current method of housing juveniles by geography to a system of determining tiers based on the severity of the crime. The bill is making it’s way through the legislature this session but advocates of system-involved juveniles and their families disagree that this change would help.

Ernest Johnson of the Ubuntu Village stated, “I think it’s getting away from the therapeutic model of the
Missouri Model that indicates that the closest the kids are to their specific families, the more likelihood for their behavior to change.”

That Missouri Model, seen by advocates as a guide for meaningful reform was adopted by the state in the early 2000’s. According to Sen Cloud, the model is currently not working.

“There’s a problem with the egregiousness of crimes with the crimes that have been committed that they have been adjudicated for and also ages, and they’re all kind of meshed together within the facilities and that I believe is providing for the lack of workplace safety and employee recruitment, and the safety of our juveniles,” said Cloud.

Johnson and other advocates say the bill would emphasize punishment over rehabilitation for juveniles, “I question whether or not if you have a tier and you think the most violent kids need to be in one place that it becomes more punitive. It’s like we need to treat these kids different that we treat other kids and that’s been a part of the problem.”

Another problem that Johnson and other juvenile advocates want to stray away from is the opening of more facilities across the state. Cloud said this is a possibility if it makes staff and juveniles safer.

SB 323 is currently in committee in Baton Rouge.

In response to the most recent escape from Bridge City Center for Youth, and the subsequent calls for closure of the prison from Sen. Pat Connick, Gina Womack, the Executive Director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), issued the following statement:

“This week’s news about another young person escaping Bridge City’s prison adds to the Office of Juvenile Justice’s never ending string of failures. While Senator Connick and other lawmakers seem aware that the youth prison system needs radical reform, including the closure of Bridge City Center for Youth, we must be intentional in planning safer, more compassionate alternatives to incarceration.

The prison does need to be closed, but not at the expense of putting the youth in worse conditions. During this legislative session, a number of policymakers have expressed the need for changes, and in particular changes that facilitate rehabilitation–but true rehabilitation or systemic transformation will never happen by putting youth behind bars. More than 40% of youth are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, even though research shows that these children can do better in their community with a range of supports like mental health resources, job training, quality education and restorative justice practices that mitigate the root causes of crime and prevent further harm. 

That change starts with divesting from our current, broken system, and fully implementing Act 1225–an unfilled promise to transform our youth justice system into a model of holistic support and coordinated care. It’s clear OJJ is unfit to provide safe conditions for youth and staff, yet Governor Bel Edwards has proposed adding $9M to OJJ’s budget. 

We know that prisons don’t keep our kids or communities safer. The effective, evidence-based solutions to Louisiana’s systemic shortfalls exist. We urge Senator Connick, and all Louisiana lawmakers, to accept their responsibility in transforming the state’s massive failure of a youth prison system into a model that actually lowers crime, strengthens communities, and keeps children safe.”